It is curious, this desire to rewrite the classics. Two years ago, HarperCollins launched the Austen Project (with mixed results), commissioning authors to re-imagine the novels of Jane Austen. And now, to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Hogarth Press has done something similar with Shakespeare’s plays.
Anne Tyler chose “The Taming of the Shrew,” moving it to her beloved Baltimore with great success; “Vinegar Girl” is funny and endearing, the quirky characters vintage Tyler. She follows the general story line of the play (a sharp-tongued young woman is wooed for practical reasons, while her beautiful sister is seduced by a tutor), but she takes plenty of liberties with the details, deftly tweaking Shakespeare’s violence and misogyny.
So, in Tyler’s version: Prickly Kate Battista, borderline-inept child care worker, housekeeper to her scientist father, big sister to the luscious Bunny, is asked to marry Pyotr, her father’s Russian lab assistant, so that he can get a green card.
Kate is insulted, of course (her father “must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle”), and she rebuffs Pyotr at every turn. Pyotr, though, is immune to rebuffing. He shows up again and again, guileless and persistent, mangling the English language charmingly, wearing her down. (“Khello?” he says. “Front door was standing wide.”)
He begins to grow on her. “There was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English,” Kate thinks. “She could tell him anything and half of it would fly right past him.”
You might wonder how Tyler handles the sexism of Shakespeare’s play — will the tart-tongued Kate be “tamed”? No worries. Tyler defines the conflict as one between cultural views of the genders rather than between the genders, and Kate’s speech at the end is not submissive, but defiant.
And Pyotr — who falls for Kate partly because she is the only person who pronounces his name correctly — well, he had us at khello.
By: Anne Tyler.
Publisher: Hogarth Press, 237 pages, $25.