The Boy Who Followed Ripley, published in 1980, is the 4th book in the Tom Ripley series, and seems to be quite different to the other installments.
In this one, Tom is sought out in his home in France by an American teenage runaway who asks him for a job. Tom agrees to hire him as a help in the garden. As they get to know each other, Tom learns more about the reasons why Billy/Frank ran away from home and sees some similarities between himself and the boy.
Then the story takes a turn that leads us to follow the two to Berlin where Billy/Frank is kidnapped…….
This book seriously had me scratching my head – I don’t even know where to start taking this apart: Should I start with the obvious flaw? Yes? OK – plot holes. So, so, many of them and they start right at the beginning. Why did Billy/Frank seek out Tom? Why does he tell him his motivations? Why do they need to go to Berlin? How do they end up in the gay bar scene? (I mean, I get why, so the question is really how?) Why the kidnapping? And here I’m really puzzled as to how this would even be practicable……. I have so, so many questions. Very little of this book made sense. Least of all the Frank’s letter.
Did Highsmith write this one purely for the money? I mean, there are a lot of details about the French tax authorities in this book that sound similar to what Highsmith was dealing with. Her relations with the French tax authorities were, erm, “strained”, so maybe that was one of the motivations for the book.
However, there was also something rather mellow in the way that Tom looked after Frank and in that Tom seemed to have a lot more patience for other people than in the first book. (I have not yet read books 2 and 3.) And something about this more personable side seemed to reflect something of the author. At least, it seemed to reflect some of what my impression is about the author after reading a few of her books, and this made The Boy Who Followed Ripley still somewhat intriguing.
Andrew Wilson (in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith) notes that Highsmith conceived the idea of this book after she had to deal with inheritance issues, and that she wrote to her editor that she wanted to explore the theme of legacy. I do believe this does indeed come across in the book – on one hand we have Frank and his father and brother, who are one line of legacy and on the other we have the similar personae of Tom and Frank. The central point of issue being that The Boy Who Followed Ripley actually rejects Tom’s motivations as strongly as he rejects the motivations of his own family – both of them being financial gain.
I honestly don’t know what to make of the book. On one hand there there are certainly some interesting themes – Ripley’s morals, questions about gender/sexuality, the topic of legacy – but on the other hand, the lack of flow of the book and the rocky plot make it bit of a chore to read.