He loved possessions, 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. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn’t take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.
The Talented Mr Ripley was my first introduction to the talents of Patricia Highsmith. That was way back in the 1990s, probably around the time that the Damon/Paltrow/Law film version of the book was released. Since then, I have read a few other books by Highsmith and about her, too. I am still in awe of her writing with every new book I pick up, but The Talented Mr Ripley remains special to me.
Tom Ripley is a deeply disturbed character, who is described first in the book as a sort of failure at life. He’s barely able to support himself, he’s sponging off friends, he has no motivation to anything, and yet he sees himself as superior to his fellow man and enjoys manipulating people. Yet, he is also very afraid of being found out.
Not just being found out of various crimes and misdemeanors, but also of being found out to be a failure, a nothing, nobody. Because Tom’s greatest issue is that he has no personality whatsoever. That makes him as forgettable as it makes him desperate to be recognised.
He was thinking that he had to identify himself, immediately. It would look worse for him, whatever happened, the longer he put it off. When he left the cathedral he inquired of a policeman where the nearest police station was. He asked it sadly. He felt sad. He was not afraid, but he felt that identifying himself as Thomas Phelps Ripley was going to be one of the saddest things he had ever done in his life.
Now I am not going to try and analyse Tom. I couldn’t. It is just that Tom’s self-hatred and feelings of unacknowledged superiority set him up to take on any means of escape from his own life that present themselves, and this is where the gripping plot to this book starts off.
We get to follow Tom on a mission, which he is bound to fail because the whole idea is ludicrous from the start. It does give Tom a new scene, tho, in which he can try and become something, become someone.
I will not give much of the plot away but suffice it to say, there is murder involved, there is a police hunt across Italy, and there are various close encounters between Tom and other characters where I was just on the edge of my seat to find out how it would resolve. Would he get away? I must have spent half my time reading about Tom hoping he would be found out, and the other half hoping that he wouldn’t – simply because it was such a thrill to read about this despicable, delusional, pathetic character that is Tom Ripley.
Re-reading the book after so many years, I knew where the story was going, but was still thrilled by the details that I had forgotten since reading this in the 1990s – details which the film got wrong, by the way.
Re-reading this also brought out many details about Highsmith’s writing that I am not sure I appreciated on the first read: Highsmith toyed with Tom. She absolutely works him like a puppet in this story, and you can see that she derives a twisted kind of fun from doing this.
At times when Tom wallows in self-pity, Highsmith makes us laugh at him.
“His parents had drowned in Boston Harbour, and Tom had always thought that probably had something to do with it, because as long as he could remember he had been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim. It gave Tom a sick, empty feeling at the pit of his stomach to think that in less than a week he would have water below him, miles deep, and that undoubtedly he would have to look at it most of the time, because people on ocean liners spent most of their time on deck. And it was particularly un-chic to be seasick, he felt. He had never been seasick, but he came very near it several times in those last days, simply thinking about the voyage to Cherbourg.”
At times when Tom’s monstrosity seems to take over, Highsmith shows us his ineptitude.
“Marge had turned her Martini over. She daubed at the crocheted tablecloth awkwardly with her napkin.
Tom came running back from the kitchen with a wet cloth. “Perfectly alright,” he said, watching the wood of the table turn white in spite of his wiping. It wasn’t the tablecloth he cared about, it was the beautiful table.
“I’m so sorry,” Marge went on protesting.
Tom hated her. He suddenly remembered her bra hanging over the windowsill in Mongibello. Her underwear would be draped over his chairs tonight, if he invited her to stay here. The idea repelled him. He deliberately hurled a smile across the table at her.
“I hope you’ll honour me by accepting a bed for tonight. Not mine,” he added, laughing, “but I’ve got two rooms upstairs and you’re welcome to one of them.”
“Thanks a lot. All right, I will.” She beamed at him.”
So, what we get in The Talented Mr Ripley is the story told from two points of view – the delusions of Tom Ripley, and the observations of Highsmith who is orchestrating Tom’s story.
Highsmith had a wicked sense humor, and I do mean “wicked” in the sense of dry, dark and very twisted. This comes to full show in Ripley and, on this second read, I could not help but wonder what other nuances of Highsmith’s personality may have made their way into the book, too.
I am assuming that Tom’s closetedness may also have been drawn from the author’s own experiences, and that the overwhelming amount of alcohol that is described in the book may, sadly, have been another.
As Andrew Wilson quotes from Highsmith’s diaries in 1944 (11 years before Ripley), in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith,
Alcohol, for Highsmith, was another way of accessing her subconscious mind and throughout her notebooks and diaries she repeatedly refers to drink as essential for the true artist, as it ‘lets him see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more’.
I have no doubt that I will refer back to Ripley – whether as a result of reading more of Highsmith’s work or whether as a comparison to other thrillers I may come across. In the weirdest of ways, The Talented Mr Ripley has been such a fun book.
Reading update posts for this are: