It must be a challenge to adapt Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for a contemporary audience. Whereas Shakespeare’s audience presumably may have found Kate’s eventual capitulation comedic, today’s audiences may rightly point out the problem with a happy ending that features a woman submitting to a man.
The 90s movie 10 Things I Hate About You managed this well, I think, by blunting the force of Kat’s capitulation. While she still does succumb to a romance with Patrick, she does so only after he serenades her in style. (Still one of the best rom com grand gestures ever, and yes, clearly I have strong feelings about this too.)
In Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler updates the Shakespeare classic in two ways: she blunts the force of Kate’s “shrew”-ishness by making her a modern woman dissatisfied with her life, and she provides a more contemporary rationale for Pyotr’s need to date her. I have mixed feelings about both, though overall I think she pulled them off well.
Despite the title, there is little acerbic about Kate’s character. She’s blunt, particularly when speaking with her students, but in a way that feels more thoughtless than pointed, and she’s more disgruntled and grouchy than acidic. To be fair, she had plenty of reason to be grouchy. She’s stuck with a job she’s not sure is right for her, and she’s also stuck parenting her vapid younger sister and clueless scientist father. It’s no wonder her many responsibilities and lack of progress make her frustrated.
Tyler adds an interesting twist to the need to pair Kate off. Rather than the dated idea of the older sister needing to marry before the younger sister can have her shot, Tyler adds in a subplot about US immigration. Pyotr is the best lab assistant Kate’s father has ever had, so when his visa is about to expire, Kate’s father is so desperate to keep him that he schemes to marry him off to Kate so he can get a green card.
This is one instance where I wish Tyler’s approach had a bit more of an edge. There are so many complicated issues around immigration that I had hoped for a bit more skewering of a system that can force people like Pyotr to feel they have no choice but to commit such a desperate act as marriage simply their livelihood. Alternatively, I had hoped for a bit of satire around Kate’s father’s sense of entitlement, and his blindness to his own privilege. He’s basically pimping his daughter out to keep a lab assistant, and not enough characters call him out for it. Also, when so many people are so desperate to immigrate to the US for a whole range of reasons, Kate’s father’s cavalier attitude towards the process and utter confidence he would succeed is beyond clueless, and I wish Tyler had delved more into that, possibly by delving deeper into Pyotr’s emotions. There is a scene where Pyotr talks about missing home, which is possibly the point where I most liked Pyotr, and I wish we’d seen more of that.
As well, putting that kind of pressure on Kate is kind of a dick move by her father, and his logic that she shouldn’t mind because she had no romantic prospects otherwise made me wish Kate had a bit more of Julia Stiles’ fire from 10 Things. I realize she eventually made a decision on her own terms, and to an extent, I’m gleeful at how she out-smarted her father in one very significant way, but overall, I felt kind of bad for her. Her actions felt more born out of hurt feelings than a victorious assertion of self, and I just wanted to look her father and her relatives in the eye and ask them what the hell they’re thinking, treating Kate that way.
A lot of my ambivalence about the ending, I think, is because Kate and Pyotr’s relationship felt oddly emotionally detached to me. Pyotr’s a bit of an opaque character so it’s hard to know how he feels about Kate — he says random things that for the most part seems pleasant and friendly at most, but shows more passion for home and the mice in the lab than for Kate. They barely seemed more than acquaintances throughout and any potential for marriage had all the passion of a roommate arrangement. In contrast, there seemed more chemistry with a cute co-worker that Kate had her eye on, and I only wish he had a bigger role. Where is the chemistry from 10 Things or even the fiery passion from the battle of wits in Shakespeare’s original?
All that being said, one spot where I’m glad for Tyler’s gentle hand is Kate’s final monologue, which in Shakespeare’s original, raises my hackles:
[…] dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.
It blots thy beauty[…]
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign[…]
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
Whey they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.2645-2670.
Tyler completely revamps this monologue into a treatise about the unfairness of gender roles and an acknowledgement of the pressures men feel to be stoic and strong. The speech felt a bit out of place within the novel, and Kate’s bringing it up felt a bit random, but I thought it struck a good balance between the level of capitulation Shakespeare’s original provided and a more modern sensibility around gender norms.
Overall, Vinegar Girl is a quick and light read. I’m not completely sure how I feel about it, but I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.