Anne Tyler hates Shakespeare’s plays. All of them. But she hates “The Taming of the Shrew” the most.
So she rewrote it.
“Vinegar Girl,” her 21st novel, drags shrewish Kate into the modern age.
“It’s such a crazy story,” Tyler says from her home in Baltimore. “People behave so inexplicably that you just know there’s another side to it. Someone’s exaggerating; somebody’s putting his own spin on things. Let’s just figure out what really happened.”
What really happens in Tyler’s revision makes a little more sense than Shakespeare’s nettlesome play, which has been entertaining, perplexing and enraging viewers for the past 400 years. (An all-female version just opened to raves in New York; the all-male production running now in Washington is a hot mess.)
The shrew in “Vinegar Girl” is a young woman named Kate Battista, who’s been stuck caring for her cute sister and absentminded father since she was expelled from college for calling her botany professor an idiot. She works as a teacher’s assistant at a preschool, where she regularly shocks parents and displeases administrators with her unvarnished opinions. As the novel opens, Kate’s father, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins, begs her to marry his earnest lab assistant to keep the young scientist from being deported when his visa expires.
That ingenious resetting of the plot retains Kate’s humiliation as a tool in her father’s scheme while letting all the characters behave with considerably more humor and gentleness than in the Bard’s version.
“The Katherina in Shakespeare’s play is insane,” Tyler says with a laugh. “She’s just spouting venom. She’s shrieking at Petruchio from the moment she meets him. And he’s not much better. So you know I had to tone them down. I’m sure that somebody is out there, saying, ‘This isn’t a shrew at all.’ ”
In fact, Tyler’s Kate is merely a smart young woman — still a dangerous creature in some circles — who doesn’t care about making everyone around her feel comfortable.
Tyler realized what fun the character could be when she was writing a scene in which Kate gets scolded by her boss. “There’s a line where I wrote, ‘Kate had nothing to say so she said nothing.’ And I thought that is so breathtakingly refreshing because women, particularly, are raised to believe that if there’s a silence, you should smooth it over and fill it with babble. First apologize and say, ‘I think. . . .’ ”
Of course, Tyler, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Breathing Lessons” (1988), isn’t the first author to tame Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. Cole Porter gave the story a zany new frame in “Kiss Me Kate” (1948), and “Ten Things I Hate About You” (1999) spun the plot into a high-school comedy starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. Even the most traditional directors have tried creative ways to re-engineer Kate’s groveling final speech about the supremacy of men. Tyler knew those lines were sometimes delivered sarcastically, but she’s found another way to preserve Kate’s dignity while serving up a sweetly romantic ending.
“It was enormous fun to write. It’s just a meringue!” Tyler says of her shortest, lightest novel. “I had to sign a contract before I’d written it, and they specify how many words it should be as a minimum. I actually did activate my computer’s word counter to make sure I had enough, and I think I just barely had enough — a few more ‘very verys’ in there.”
“Vinegar Girl” is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which has hired well-known novelists to produce modern stories based on Shakespeare’s plays. Howard Jacobson retold “The Merchant of Venice” in February; Margaret Atwood will retell “The Tempest” this fall. But Tyler got first pick of the plays.
“It wasn’t till my daughters pointed it out that I realized that telling an English editor that I hated Shakespeare was probably considered impolite.” (There’s a little touch of Kate right there.)
That Tyler was willing to participate in this project at all is something of a fluke. The Hogarth editor just happened to catch her in a vulnerable moment. Tyler says, “When they first mentioned the possibility to me, I actually laughed, because here’s somebody with terrible plots — and they’re not even his own — but wonderful words, and then someone comes along and says, ‘Why don’t you take his terrible plot and add your inferior words to it?’ I mean really, does it make any sense?”
But in the end, it was Shakespeare’s “terrible plot” that won her over. Halfway through work on her previous novel, “A Spool of Blue Thread,” Tyler says she was concerned about her next project: “I always panic about how I’m going to spend the rest of my life, and I thought, ‘Well, in this case, you know there would be a plot ready made!” So, she signed on, ruefully acknowledging the limits of originality.
“We’re living in a very unoriginal age: Let’s recycle everything we can get our hands on,” she says. “I’ve gotten old enough by now so that sometimes, when I’m reading a brand new novel, I think, ‘I’ve read this before,’ and I don’t mean that the writer is plagiarizing. I just mean that it’s all old after a while. There are only so many plots in the world.”
But don’t expect any more revivals from her. “It’s the first time,” she says, “and I think it should be the last time. You wouldn’t want to get a reputation for doing this.”
Another thing Tyler won’t get a reputation for is publicizing her own books. In an age when writers are expected to hawk their wares on social media, she remains, at 74, decidedly outside the Twittersphere. And her recent experience has made her even more reluctant. Under pressure from her publisher, she did a little publicity for “A Spool of Blue Thread,” but now says, “It’s very bad for my writing. It actually derailed me for about a year afterwards.” She’s made a rare exception for this newspaper interview only because her editor insisted she explain the odd circumstances of “Vinegar Girl.”
But doesn’t she realize how much her fans would love to meet her in bookstores around the country?
“Do you know how disappointed they would be?” she fires back. “I’ve seen it. If I go to a grocery store, and somebody stops me and talks to me, I can just see the disappointment cross their face because I don’t say anything that’s like what I write. I’m just talking about how expensive bananas are getting.”
That self-deprecating wit is one of the charms that keeps bringing us back to her novels since “If Morning Ever Comes” appeared in 1964.
“I have to go on writing just because I have no hobbies,” Tyler says. “But I don’t feel as if the world needs another book from me.”
She’s wrong, but who can argue with a woman like this?
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Anne Tyler
Hogarth. 237 pp. $25