The Taming of the Shrew has always been my least favorite Shakespeare play. I didn’t much care for Kiss Me, Kate or any other modernization of it, until Anne Tyler managed to reimagine it in a way that takes the bad taste out of my mouth. Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, novelists taking Shakespeare plays and turning them into novels.
Of course, because it’s Anne Tyler, the story is set in Baltimore. Kate Battista, the 29-year-old-daughter of a brilliant scientist father, is still living at home, gardening, doing the cooking, the laundry, and helping to take care of her younger sister, Bunny when she isn’t working at a preschool as a teacher’s aide. Of all these activities, gardening interests her the most. As someone at the college she dropped out of once observed, “She has. No. Plan.”
Kate has long hair because she has no patience with making idle conversation at hair salons, so stopped getting it cut. When Pyotr, her father’s lab assistant, first sees her, “he was gazing at Kate admiringly. Men often wore that look when they first saw her, It was due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”
Pyotr has come to America on an O-1 visa, which “means that he possesses some extraordinary skill or knowledge that no one here in this country has.” But he is on the third year of his three-year visa, and he and Kate’s father are not finished with their research project. Kate’s father asks her to marry him so he can stay in the country, but not as a real marriage—he envisions that things will stay as they are, with Kate running his household and Pyotr moving into a spare room.
The first time her father mentions marrying Pyotr, Kate tells him “very funny” and goes on with what she has been doing. The second time she is at first disbelieving, saying “You’re saying you want me to marry someone I don’t even know so that you can hang onto your research assistant.” Then she is hurt, discovering that “you could really feel physically wounded if someone hurt your feelings badly enough.” Pyotr comes to apologize, saying it “was inconsiderate of us to ask you to deceive your government….I think Americans feel guilt about such things.”
Kate tells him she accepts his apology, following that with “So. See you around.” But he doesn’t leave. He tells her that it “Was a foolish notion anyhow….It is evident you could choose any husband you want. You are very independent girl.” They actually have a conversation, partly because Kate finds that “there was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English.” Eventually, though, they talk about that, too, and get more insight into the way each of them communicates.
After this conversation, Kate softens towards the idea of the marriage-for-visa. She says to her father “If it’s just a formality…if it’s just some little legal thing that would allow you to change his visa status and after that we could reverse it…” So they go ahead with the idea.
To Pyotr, Kate says “not a step of this plan involves anybody being crazy about anybody” and he seems to agree. He also seems to appreciate her special qualities, though, and relish the thought of acquiring in-laws, as he has no family of his own.
During a dinner with her family, which Pyotr cooked, he announces that Kate will be moving in with him, and her father argues that he will be moving in with them. Mr. Battista says “But I thought we discussed this” and Pyotr says “we discussed this and I said no.” We see Kate liking the idea of moving to her own place, and Pyotr firing down any opposition.
There is some adventure on the day of the wedding, involving Kate’s younger sister Bunny and Pyotr and the father’s research, but they do get married and at the wedding dinner Kate gives a speech which is different from her usual concluding monologue:
“It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something—‘Oh, I’m okay,’ they say. ‘Everything’s just fine.’ They’re a lot less free than women are, when you think about it. Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
The novel’s epilogue bears out efficacy of the “giving each other space” idea, as it is told by the son of Kate and Pyotr, named after his grandfather. He says Kate is getting a plant ecology award and that Pyotr and Mr. Battista had gotten a prize “last winter…in a whole other country.” He ends with an image of his parents “side by side and very close together, neither one in front or behind, and they were holding hands and smiling.”
I like the way Anne Tyler has taken the idea of what it means to “tame” something away from obeying and towards understanding, like in The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Much like Saint-Exupery’s boy with the rose, Tyler’s Pyotr realises that by taming someone, he is picking her out from the rest, a person who will become, for him, “unique in all the world.”
Have you ever enjoyed a performance or updating of The Taming of the Shrew? It’s hard to imagine anyone not able to enjoy this one.