Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. In the mad rush to “Kiss me, Kate!” we leave behind and forget the two scenes of the “Induction,” in which a hoax is played on a poor sleeping drunkard, after which the whole merry company settles in to watch the comedy. Christopher Sly wakes to find all around him proclaiming him a wealthy man, the bald lie a neat parallel to Petruchio’s method of taming his wife-to-be by insisting that Katherina tell lies and proclaim the sun the moon.
In her contemporary retelling of the play, Anne Tyler’s Pyotr requires no such absurd proclamations from Kate, though she does have to lie. There is no attempt to modernize the subjugation of a woman by her father or by her groom. I am a sucker for modern retellings of classic texts, and in that regard fairly easy to please, but Anne Tyler’s handling of the marriage plot is a stroke of genius. Dr. Battista asks his daughter Kate to marry his research assistant Pyotr Shcherbakov so that Pyotr can continue to live in the US and help Battista with his life’s work. A looming deportation because of an expired visa is the obstacle, the green card is the quest, and US Immigration is the unseen enemy. US Immigration is also the unseen audience for whom Kate and Pyotr must perform, yet another stroke of genius from Tyler. Here is the play within the play. Aware that they could be asked to produce evidence of real courtship and marriage, they have to perform and stage and record it. Tyler gets a lot of comic mileage from the awareness that they are being watched. With US Immigration, Tyler kills three birds with one stone: the quest for the green card is the premise for their lies, for their marriage and for their performance.
Vinegar Girl takes its title from the saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When Kate teaches him the saying, Pyotr wonders why a person would ever want to catch flies, and gives Kate the nickname Vinegar Girl endearingly. It’s a celebration of her prickly personality, a condemnation of the gender politics that make sweetness an attractive feminine attribute, and a welcome subversion of Katherina’s monologue at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Katherina is utterly changed at the end of the play, affirming a husband’s right to rule. Kate changes but is not tamed. At the beginning of the book, Kate is adrift and lonely and beginning to be bitter. She does not have a life plan, and the impact that this lack of direction has had on her self-esteem makes all the more believable her agreeing to marry Pyotr. It is, at the very least, a way to leave her father’s house. She is an indifferent housekeeper and cook at the beginning of the book and at the end, and this is exactly as it should be. Tyler’s Kate is not interested in making house or making nice, and she does not have to. She does not have to change in order for this marriage to do the work it has to do. And, while Shakespeare’s Bianca is sickeningly dutiful to her father, Tyler’s Bunny is a rule-breaker, a layabout and a poor student in need of hours of remedial tutoring. It’s this last aspect of the modernization of Bianca that is my only quarrel with Tyler’s book. Why make Bunny an airhead? She could have had swarms of tutors coming and going for gifted enrichment just the same….
But “gifted” is not where this book is aiming. This is easy and delightful reading. It’s clever and charming and fun. I loved every minute of reading it.