“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, /Thy head, thy sovereign. . .”
“The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare
Don’t cite this passage to Kate Battista, the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s contemporary rendition of Shakespeare’s early frolic. Both novel and play adopt the archetypal tale of a befuddled father juggling the marital prospects of two difficult daughters: a beautiful blond ingénue and a crusty, independent brunette. Anne Tyler’s 21st novel, however, is a light, frothy comedy compared to the rugged farce of her muse.
Tyler’s Kate is a 29-year-old preschool teacher, self-sufficient, quirky, intelligent, and understandably cranky. Kate’s naïve sister, Bunny, is being courted by an older boy pretending to tutor her, but whose interests lie elsewhere. The widowed Dr. Battista is an absent-minded scientist eager to marry off Kate to Pyotr Shcherbakov, to secure American residency for his prize colleague. Kate is, of course, less than eager to meet. But Pyotr? “ ‘Vwouwv!’ he said . . . 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.”
No-nonsense Kate toils at an unrewarding job and numbly tends house for her father and the spoiled Bunny. She’s insulted that Battista wants to sacrifice her to the brilliant, but artless Pyotr. The latter is nothing if not persistent, visiting the house, offering compliments, bringing gifts, striving to make conversation in his fractured, endearing English.
Tyler contemporizes in large and small ways. Battista’s breakthrough autoimmunity experiments with mice bring ethics complaints from irate PETA activists. Pyotr’s fight for residency echoes current immigration headlines. Under Edward’s spell, Bunny becomes a militant vegetarian. Despite their differences, the sisters are loyal. Kate questions Edward’s intentions. Once Kate agrees to marry Pyotr for the legally required period, Bunny discovers a feminist voice and tries to halt the wedding.
An effective retelling, while nodding to the original text, stands on its own as a story in the way Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince’’ responds to “Hamlet’’ and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World’’ plays with “The Tempest.’’ Tyler succeeds in creating a world we believe in as Kate struggles with work, relaxes in her garden, and endures her eccentric insensitive father and bratty sister. Catastrophe strikes when Battista’s mice are kidnapped, threatening his lifelong research.
Riffing ironically on Shakespeare’s lavish banquet fare, Tyler features food throughout the novel. Kate first meets Pyotr when she brings her father’s lunch to the lab. The pragmatic Battista insists on a daily dinner of insipid, if nutritionally complete, “meat mash,” which is prepared in quantity and reheated nightly.
When Pytor comes to dinner, he brings four chocolate bars. “Ninety percent cacao. Flavonoids. Polyphenols.” Bunny asks the guest what he misses the most from home, and he answers unhesitatingly, “I miss the pickles.” Aunt Thelma serves rack of lamb and vichyssoise, which pleases Pyotr, “anything that featured potatoes or cabbage made him happy.”
In a charming moment, Pyotr declares, “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’ ’’ Kate responds, “Well in my country, they say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Pyotr agrees, pulls her close and asks, “But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”
Recalling one of the funniest scenes from the play, Pyotr, like Petruchio, arrives late to the wedding of convenience in outlandish attire. The more Kate and Pyotr spar, the closer they become. Kate watches Pyotr evolve from a clumsy cheerful rube into a complex, tender man. In “Vinegar Girl,’’ each character is tamed in a different way.
Will Battista’s mice be recovered? Will he make his breakthrough? Will Bunny grow up? Will Kate and Pyotr’s marriage last long enough for him to achieve residency? All this and more is answered in Tyler’s clever epilogue.
By Anne Tyler. Hogarth, 237 pp., $25Valerie Miner is the author of 14 books including two novels based on Shakespeare plays, “A Walking Fire’’ (“King Lear’’) and “Blood Sisters’’ (“Hamlet’’). She teaches at Stanford University, and her website is www.valerieminer.com.