I should be reviewing a novel published in 1959 – but I’m not. I’m zipping back to 1956 to review Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.
The reason? I unintentionally selected ten books written by men to represent the 1950s. It seemed only fair to add two books written by women to the mix.
I’m rather chuffed that I made this decision, otherwise I’d have missed out on reading two amazing novels. The first was Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse – and the second is The Talented Mr. Ripley.
I have a steadily growing pile next to my keyboard of books I need to review, and every time I place a book on top of that pile; every time I sit down at my computer and I see that pile waiting for me, I feel a twist of guilt. And a flurry of rising panic.
As a result, this is going to be a short review. Consider the following just a few of my scattered thoughts on this entertaining, brilliantly crafted novel…
The Talented Mr Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith // published in 1956
It’s neither the police, nor debt collectors on Ripley’s tail. It’s Herbert Greenleaf, the father of a man Ripley knew briefly in his early twenties. Mr Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, has run away to Italy. Much to his parents’ horror, Dickie is rumoured to be living with a woman. If only an old friend could convince Dickie to come back to his family and take his rightful place at the helm of the family business. The rich Greenleaf family would, of course, pay for all of Tom’s expenses…
It’s not long before Tom has convinced Herbert Greenleaf that he and Dickie are the closest of friends, and Tom’s boarding a boat for Italy – first class, of course – where a new beginning awaits.
When he manages to track down Dickie Greenleaf and win his confidence, Tom can’t believe his luck. But when his new-found friendship with Dickie comes under threat, Tom’s perfect life begins to slowly unravel.
Tom Ripley is one of literature’s most intriguing anti-heroes. From the novel’s very outset, Patricia Highsmith elegantly catapults her reader right into Tom’s head – a whirling maelstrom of simmering jealousy, deep-seated resentment, and barely-concealed misogyny. Consumed by paranoia and violent mood swings, Tom Ripley is, quite simply, reprehensible. A monster.
But at the same time, Ripley is suave; attractive. He’s clever and cultured. Even though he’s one of the most hateful characters you’ll ever encounter in literature, you’ll be on his side from the first page until the very last.
It’s this stroke of genius that makes this thrilling novel a true classic. The Talented Mr Ripley is the perfect example of the kind of persuasive power a skilled author can wield over her reader.
While I’m not usually a fan of novels with a lot of action, I found Highsmith’s clarity and attention to detail during the novel’s action sequences refreshing. More often than not, I find the effect of too many things happening at once incredibly disorienting. In my experience as a reader, not every writer has what it takes to write action scenes that don’t leave the reader confused. It sounds so easy, but it’s deceptively difficult. Highsmith’s action scenes are deft; precise, written in successions of swift, sharp sentences that will have you almost forgetting to breathe as you read.
Ripley is an overwhelmingly physical novel. Tom expresses his feelings physically: his fear tingles down his spine, his paranoia makes him nauseous, his hands shake with anger, he sweats when he’s nervous. In the place of genuine human emotion, all Tom Ripley has left to rely on are his reflexes – like an animal.
For Ripley, identity is something that’s irrevocably paired with the material world. Riddled with an overinflated sense of entitlement and greed, Ripley is convinced that if you take a man’s monogrammed luggage, wear his fancy jewellery, and speak with the same accent as him, you can become him. For Thomas Ripley, identity is nothing but the clothes you wear and the watch in your pocket. And the more expensive the clothes and watch, the better the man. Other people are their possessions; essentially empty, unknowable things:
“It struck Tom as 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 an illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.”
But if identity is nothing but a costume that can worn and discarded at will, what does that make Ripley himself? At the heart of this novel, the question Highsmith leaves hanging in the air is existential: beneath everything, is there really a Thomas Ripley at all?
Don’t dismiss Highsmith’s psychological masterpiece as a mere piece of fluff. The Talented Mr Ripley is a triumph of escapist literature that will leave your mind racing – and your heart beating wildly – long after you’ve finished reading. This perfectly-crafted novel is easily as clever as it is entertaining. And it really is an incredibly entertaining novel…
I purposefully picked up The Talented Mr Ripley knowing next to nothing about it. And I think that’s the perfect way to experience this novel. Don’t even stop to read the blurb on the back cover. Just open to the first page, crack the spine, start reading – and enjoy.