Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

A hanger-on develops murderous habits

The book opens with Tom Ripley, sensitive down-on-his-luck orphan, skittish of the law, being chased down a Manhattan street by wealthy Mr. Greenleaf, who can’t understand why his son Dickie won’t leave the beautiful Italian coast and return to New York to work in Dad’s boating business. Mr. Greenleaf has a proposition for Tom – he’ll pay Tom’s way to Europe if Tom tries to persuade Dickie to come home. Tom can’t believe his luck. He arrives in Italy, encountering the initially annoyed Dickie, along with Dickie’s bosom friend Marge. Dickie seems to have the perfect lifestyle of beachy luxury and creativity. Quickly Tom charms his way into Dickie's digs but when Dickie’s friendliness cools, Tom isn’t quite ready to say goodbye.

The unique thing about this book was the way Highsmith made you feel sympathetic towards Tom Ripley, who is a cold utterly unsympathetic character. Everyone who meets him (except for the somewhat dense Mr. Greenleaf) chalks him up as a loser, an outsider, a potential “sissy.” His insecurity makes you feel sorry for him. You start to root for him. The character study entwines itself with the murder mystery. I admired the way the homosexual undercurrent is a key part of the plotting and of the character development of both Dickie and Tom, yet homosexuality is never addressed or referred to head on. I guess that was part of the cultural constraints of the time.

And really what is the difference between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf – they’re both parasites. Only Dickie is comfortable being Dickie and Tom is definitely not comfortable being Tom. Tom wants things. His improvised fabrications are helped along by the dopey cops. The story got more boring for me when it turned into a cat and mouse game.  Skillful but cold.

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