A Fly has less sting than a wasp – Vinegar Girl, by Ann Tyler: book review

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” 

The Taming of The Shrew

vigI bought this book for a couple of reasons:I had never read any of Ann Tyler’s novels, and considering it a sin since she is consistently acclaimed as a Great Modern American Novelist, had always promised myself to get to it one day. Then I heard of the Hogart series about modern retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by novelists, with (amongst others) Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson – 3 authors I greatly enjoy and became slightly frantic at the idea of re-immersing myself into Shakespeare’s world via great contemporary authors. Now, while trying (and failing ) to find an ebook version of Winterson’s The Gap of Time (I don’t know why, but I’m beginning to suspect my ereader’s library-search-engine-thing is acting on behalf of the weirdest censorship comity) I found Ann Tyler’s vinegar girl instead and was intrigued:how do you modernize a play about a Father trying to marry off his fiery daughter to a boorish man who wants to tame her?

Well Tyler has found an ingenious premise: in her retelling Katherina, now Kate, is the daughter of a typically mad scientist (with absolutely no sense of remorse at the idea of having been partly responsible for his wife’s death by getting her to try a new experimental unauthorized antidepressant therapy, and very little regard for his supposedly “more intelligent” elder daughter who has to do all the house chores), who devises of a great plan involving her marrying his precious Eastern European lab assistant to get him a green card, all of this so that Dr Battista may continue to work on his obsessive research.
If this premise works well as a modernization trick, and is well exploited (Pyotr’s foreignness and language difficulties providing a good alternative explanation for his boorishness, for example), Kate, supposed to be waspish in Shakespeare, and acidic (as she is a vinegar girl, here) is rather just unadapted and weird, but doesn’t really stand up to her father or anyone (least of all her husband-to-be), and goes along with the scheme rather quickly. That, and the modernized version of the “pro-marriage, pro-husband-devotion” speech from the end of the original comedy, sit rather unwell with the modern setting. This tamed girl who was never really untamed in the first place, defending her new husband for reasons rather unclear made me slightly uncomfortable , where as the original speech, in his historical context, is part of the time it was written it.

Maybe some things are un-adaptable and should not be modernized at all costs. So in attempting to stick as close to the tale as possible, I would wager Ann Tyler lost some of her sting, and her creative freedom, and, apart from some ingenious tricks of new-contextualization, didn’t offer much more than a clever rewriting. I’m not exactly sure that any one could have done any better being given this exact task, but I’ll probably check out some other books in the series to compare. Granted, “A winter’s tale”has less proto-un-feminist statements that would be tricky to adapt!

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2 thoughts on “A Fly has less sting than a wasp – Vinegar Girl, by Ann Tyler: book review

  1. I’m a huge fan of Anne Tyler but haven’t come across this before. It does indeed sound like a challenge to update such a story in a modern setting, so I can see why it might not come off, but I shall keep an eye out for it nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

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