Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Tom Ripley is a bit down on his luck, he's had to stay with a friend in his dingy place when he discovers a man is following him. Tom is not surprised someone is following him he's been indulging in silly scams, but his attempts to get away allow him to meet the father of a casual acquaintance. He sizes up the opportunity before him. The man wants him to go to Europe and attempt to persuade his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return home. His mother is ill and the family business awaits him. The Greenleaf family is wealthy and Tom finds himself attracted to the idea of it. They offer to pay his way and he heads off to Italy.

While Dickie Greenleaf presents a bit of a challenge to Tom at first, they soon become friends and almost inseparable. Before Tom arrived, Dickie had only one other friend in the village, Marge, and their friendship edges her out a bit. She naturally becomes jealous and suggests to Dickie that Tom might actually be queer. This creates a rift in their friendship and ends their good times. Tom is upset and jealous and hurt. He both misses Dickie and the moneyed lifestyle he was living. He proposes one last trip to Dickie, and on that trip he murders him and assumes his identity.

The book is really amazing in many ways after that because Tom is actually quite good at lying to everyone around him and assuming Dickie's identity. He talks like he thinks Dickie talks and dresses in his clothes and being Dickie allows him the freedom to act in ways he otherwise wouldn't, but it also locks him even more in a cage of isolation because he can't get close to anyone for fear they will somehow eventually make connections with people who knew the real Dickie Greenleaf. He is at times consumed with panic, and willing to do absolutely anything it takes to protect his stolen identity. But the funny thing is, the whole time you're reading, you can't help but sympathize a little bit with him even though he obviously has some serious mental issues. There are times when he is caught in a cold shock himself over what he has done.

More and more things happen to threaten his new life and he creates and spins more lies to protect his story. He marvels that at many points people have all the information they need to put together the truth of what happened and yet they never manage to do so, certain assumptions blind them to reality.

The style of the book is actually quite easy to read and in parts more tense and exciting than others. The way in which homosexuality is addressed seems true for the times, when Marge makes the suggestion that Tom is queer, Dickie gets really upset and cuts him out of his life and Tom feels a kind of deep shame. Tom mentions having wanted to spend the rest of his life with Dickie, but he is also consumed with envy at his life. He never seems to express a kind of deep remorse at killing Dickie, only passing regret that things could have been different if Marge hadn't interfered.

But the idea of Tom constantly taking on other identities, running scams, compulsively lying, all lead him to be quite lonely and paranoid. One of my favorite parts of the book was this:

You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and really see what when on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.

Tom later calls it the maybe the most significant moment of his life, this shocking realization that rocks him to the core. But the funny thing is of course, that Tom never truly reveals himself to others for who he is, he makes up stories he feels certain will please them and impress them. He creates these elaborate stories in his mind and tells them to himself over and over again so that they will be believable. If he knows enough about another person's life, he feels himself that he has lived it. And so in never truly having an identity of his own he is of course unable to form intimate attachments.

His envy of the upper class life perhaps stems from this, he comes to feel possessions are very meaningful. When he furthers his material gains and wealth he reflects on it later: "He loved possession, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation, but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence." Shortly after this, though, he is reminded in a startling way of all the moral boundaries he had to cross to get to this place. He is almost shocked, in a way, at who he has become.

Paranoia must surely haunt Tom Ripley. There are actually four more books about him, but I don't know if I will be reading them. I thought this one was pretty good, though, it was chilling, thought provoking, easy to read, and much better than that movie with Matt Damon I saw a long time ago. I am interested in reading The Price of Salt though, by the same author, which is considered to be the first lesbian fiction story with a happy ending. She also wrote the book that Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train was based on.

Rating: 4.5/5
Source of Book: Paperbackswap
Publisher: Vintage Crime (Random House)


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