The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew and part of a series of books that aim to bring Shakespeare plays into the modern age. It lead me to think about whether Shakespeare can ever be truly updated, or if our values are just too different.

The Taming of the Shrew is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, due to how women and gender roles are portrayed, and while this plot may have appealed to the Elizabethans, it doesn’t immediately seem like it’s one that would translate to a modern audience.

Before writing this review, I also read the original text of The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the story involves a father marrying off his outspoken elder daughter, Katerina, to the first man that comes along, Petruchio. Interested only interested in her dowry at first, Petruchio, often described as a ‘madman’, then resolves to ‘tame’ Katerina. He proceeds to give her a taste of her own medicine by bullying and berating her at every turn, until she agrees to submit to him in every way – even believing that the sun is the moon if he says that it’s so. She then gives a long final speech about wifely duty and obedience. I’m sure there are more complex ways to interpret this play, but I won’t go into them here.

How does Vinegar Girl compare?

The basic premise of Vinegar Girl is very similar to The Taming of the Shrew. Kate lives at home looking after her father and younger sister. She’s happy on her own without a man and can sometimes be a bit spiky and rude. Pyotr needs a green card so he can stay on as a lab assistant to Kate’s father, and the two men come up with the perfect solution – Pyotr should marry Kate. Kate is horrified, but her objections are eventually worn down and agrees to give it a go.

As opposed to the Shakespeare original, Kate’s developing relationship with Pyotr does feel genuine. He shows a real interest in getting to know her, and he’s also the only person who can see through her sister’s fluffy nonsense. Language and cultural barriers, as well as Pyotr’s single-minded devotion to his job, are used to excuse his offensive or neglectful behaviour, in contrast to him setting out to be deliberately hurtful, as Petruchio is in the play.

Kate never really comes across as a shrew, as she’s perceived to be in the play. While she may be somewhat socially awkward, she’s doesn’t seem to be particularly headstrong or independent – in fact to me she seemed more like a put-upon doormat right from the opening page. Of course this may also be true of Shakespeare, depending on how you read it.

Kate gives a similar final speech, although this time it’s about how Pyotr is just misunderstood, along with men in general. Although it mirrors Shakespeare, it felt contrived and unbelievable.

There’s no doubt that Kate and Pyotr are the main stars of the show here, while the rest of the cast felt a little one-dimensional. Other characters, such as Bunny, the sister, and her suitors, seem to have lost their purpose in this update, and could easily have been removed entirely.

Conclusions?

Some parts of Vinegar Girl did make me laugh and the dialogue between Kate and those around her is actually really witty and amusing. It’s a testament to Anne Tyler’s writing skills that I didn’t dislike this book more. But at the end of the day I just didn’t believe real people would behave or react the way they did in this book. Some actions, conversations and decisions felt forced in order to move the story in the right direction. The concept of needing to marry to please your parents or gain independence also feels outdated, given that this book is set in modern day Baltimore.

Even though I can acknowledge why the play might be problematic to update, I found it frustrating to read. I would have loved to have seen more character development. It’s a relatively short book at just 240 pages, and if it was longer and given a bit more love I might have enjoyed it more.

Compared to other attempts to bring The Taming of the Shrew into the modern world, such as 90’s teen rom com 10 Things I Hate About You, I think Vinegar Girl unfortunately falls short.

What are your thoughts about updating Shakespeare? Have you read/watched any modern interpretations that you think have worked particularly well?

 

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – Hannah Tinti

The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe story: Loo has spent her life travelling the country with her father, never staying in one place for too long and always ready to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. Samuel Hawley, her father, has a dangerous past – one that’s written across his body in scars. When they attempt to settle down in the hometown of Loo’s mother, resistance from the local community causes problems for them both. As Loo grows up and struggles to fit in and become her own person, she also has to reconcile her idealistic childhood views of her father with the man that he used to be, and the man that he’s become.

My views: I really enjoyed this book. The format – which is made up of stories of Samuel’s past and how he came to get each of his twelve bullet scars, interspersed with the story of Loo’s present as she attempts to deal with bullying, boys and an absent mother – worked really well and kept me gripped.

Samuel is unapologetic about his past. He knows that he’s made some bad decisions and chosen a dubious path on numerous occasions, with repercussions that have affected not just himself but also his daughter. He may not have been the model father, but he’s fiercely protective of Loo, and has turned his life around to raise her as best he can. As she grows up and starts to question him, he’s forced to deal with the fact that she’s no longer a child but a young woman capable of making her own decisions and her own mistakes. Continue reading

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

The miniaturistThe story:
Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of successful merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But when she arrives, Johannes is absent while his sharp-tongued sister Marin rules the house with an iron fist. Johannes presents Nella with a miniature version of her new home as a wedding gift, which she proceeds to fill with tiny replicas of objects and people – created by a mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far too much about inner workings of the Brant household. It soon becomes clear to Nella that the house has many secrets. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she uncovers far more than she expected and sets off a dangerous chain of events.

My thoughts:
I know that there are a lot of people who absolutely loved this book, but while I enjoyed the story and thought it was well written, I just didn’t connect with the characters. To me, it felt like I was being told, rather than shown, how the characters felt about unfolding events. As a result it all felt a bit detached, and I never felt any real emotion on their behalf.

The interactions between Nella, her husband and the other members of the household seemed limited and stilted – so much so that I really didn’t believe in the relationships that developed between over the course of the book either.

The story started well and I was intrigued by the situation and the mysterious miniaturist. The middle part meandered on quite slowly, and while it did pick up towards the end I just wasn’t that interested in the outcome. The story line about the miniaturist feels unfinished and isn’t fully explained, which was frustrating and left me feeling like I was missing something.

That said, I really liked the setting of seventeenth century Amsterdam, the descriptions of the city and the historical insight into Nella’s daily life. It was really interesting to get a glimpse of the difficulties faced by women and by anyone else who didn’t fit into the strict rules of society, and how this impacted on their lives and experiences.

This feels like a short review but I just didn’t really have any strong feelings about this book either way, which in itself is a bit of a disappointment given all the hype that surrounded it on its release.

The Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber

the-book-of-strange-new-thingsThe story:
Peter, a Christian missionary, is sent to spread the word and provide spiritual guidance to the native inhabitants of Oasis – a colony that’s been established on a planet light years away. He arrives in a new world that is the complete opposite of everything he’s imagined. At the same time, his wife Bea is left to face her own personal problems on an earth that is gradually falling apart.

My thoughts:
At the start of the book, Peter comes across as anxious, needy and reliant on Bea’s emotional support. Separated from Bea across an infinite chasm of time and space, and preoccupied with his mission and with building a new community with the Oasans, Peter cannot comprehend what she’s going through at home. He essentially abandons her in the time when she most needs him. As a character, he didn’t win me over.

The religious aspect of this book didn’t appeal to me at first, but as more of Peter’s past and the situation on Oasis are revealed it became more interesting. Rather than being the central focus of the book, people’s beliefs are used to expose their motivations, backgrounds and various character flaws. Continue reading

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Station ElevenIn Station Eleven, 99% of the population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu. Towns and cities have been deserted, as people set out to escape the flu, which spread quickly and without mercy throughout densely populated areas. Instead, settlements have sprung up wherever people ended up when they ran out of fuel – around petrol stations or fast food restaurants – or at hotels or defunct airport lounges.
It starts with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage whilst performing King Lear at a Toronto theatre, just days before the collapse. Arthur dies in the old world, but the lives of people who knew him wind throughout the past and the present. From his ex-wives to the young child actress playing a walk-on part in Lear, he is the glue that holds the novel together.

Twenty years in the future, the national grid is down. The survivors have no electricity. Even if they can discover ways to generate their own power, the internet is down. Modern communication methods no longer exist. Kirsten, the child who once performed in King Lear, is now part of the Travelling Symphony, travelling the country performing plays by Shakespeare. They offer people much needed and wanted entertainment as they rebuild their lives again from scratch. But when travelling through one settlement, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The symphony is threatened, and has to pull together and rely on all their wits to avoid falling into the clutches of the dangerous self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’.

In the past, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, struggles to cope with the pressures of life of Hollywood, while Elizabeth, his second, takes her young son to live halfway around the world. Arthur’s college friend, Clark, remembers the person that he used to be. Arthur’s death is a catalyst that throws them all back together.

But the backbone of this story isn’t about the plague itself, and it’s not really about the symphony’s altercation with the Prophet, which provides just a loose framework and structure for the novel. There are no huge battles for supplies or survival. Instead, this book is about how people adapt and change as a result of events that have changed the world beyond recognition. It’s about the relationships that people form and the search for answers behind a natural disaster. Continue reading

Discussing Antonia Honeywell’s ‘The Ship’

The ShipI was lucky enough to be selected as a member of the Curtis Brown Book Group, and Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel ‘The Ship’ was the first book up for discussion. It was a great pick, and there are so many points for discussion that it’s hard to know where to start!

Sixteen year-old Lalla has been raised in a world that is slowly disintegrating before her eyes. Floods, banking crashes, food shortages and disease have destroyed parts of the world and driven the survivors into small, isolated pockets. Every citizen is required to keep themselves registered. Without their cards, they are no longer considered to be the responsibility of the government and are liable to be shot on sight. The homeless and the unregistered are forced to seek shelter wherever they can – from a tent city in Regents Park to the British Museum or St Paul’s Cathedral.

For as long as she can remember, Lalla’s parents have been talking about the Ship – the vessel that will lead them to a better place along with five hundred carefully selected ‘worthy’ souls. But when Lalla finally makes it onto the promised Ship, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply wrong. She’s plagued with questions that no one is willing to answer – where are they going, who are they leaving behind, and ultimately, what are they living for? Continue reading

Roopa Farooki’s ‘The Good Children’

the good childrenRoopa Farooki’s ‘The Good Children’ focuses on the lives of the Suddeq family in Lahore, the Punjab.

From birth, the Suddeq children – Sully, Jakie, Mae and Lana – are pushed into set roles determined by their gender and by social expectations. The boys will study, go abroad for education and return as successful doctors. The girls will be dutiful daughters, marry well and help to keep the family in the highest social standing.

But their mother’s determination to force them into these ideals of ‘good children’ forces a wedge between her and her children. All four grow up to rebel and push the boundaries in their own way – Sully marries outside of his religion and Jakie falls in love with a white Irishman, while the girls leave their husbands and raise their children with Western values.

Despite scattering to all corners of the globe to escape their mother’s grasp over their lives, their childhood in the Punjab profoundly affects all four of the children. As they build their lives in new surroundings and carve their own path away from family and cultural expectations, they all struggle to some extent with feelings of enduring guilt or resentment. Many years later, they are drawn back to their childhood home and forced to come to terms with their upbringing and the choices they’ve made since. Continue reading