Book Review: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith

If it’s odd that one of my favorite books centers around a sociopathic murderer, I don’t care.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (movie tie-in book cover)
It IS a little hard to picture Dickie Greenleaf as anyone but Jude Law after seeing the movie, I’ll admit.

If you’ve seen the film The Talented Mr. Ripley but haven’t read the book, know that there are some major differences. I like both of them in their own right, but I mention it because some people were not big fans of the movie, and I don’t think that necessarily prevents one from enjoying the book. Unless unrepentant murderin’ nauseates you, I think anyone who likes interesting, thought-provoking characters will find value in the book.

Tom Ripley isn’t a con man, exactly. He’s far too socially awkward for that, but he does have a habit of putting himself in fraudulent situations. When we first meet him, he’s busy with a scam in which he gets people to write checks for supposed back-taxes owed. Though he receives many of these checks, he never cashes them, as they are not written in his name. Just the fact that he can get the check is enough, until he starts to suspect he will be caught. In a bit of luck, for Tom Ripley always runs into a bit of luck, he happens to see the father of a man he met a few times, Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf. Dickie has been wiling away his trust fund in Italy, supposedly painting and not doing much else, and his father would like him to come home and begin taking over the family sailboat business.

Richard was always so influenced by his friends. If you or somebody like you who knew him could get a leave of absence, I’d even send them over to to talk to him. I think it’d be worth more than my going over, anyway. I don’t suppose you could possibly get a leave of absence from your present job, could you?

Tom’s heart took a sudden leap. He put on an expression of reflection. It was a possibility. Something in him had smelt it out and leapt at it even before his brain. Present job: nil. He might have to leave town soon, anyway. He wanted to leave New York. ‘I might,’ he said carefully, with the same pondering expression, as if he were even now going over the thousand little ties that could prevent him.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (cover)
The book was first published in 1955, but this Vintage Crime cover is the edition I have. I believe W.W. Norton is the publisher with the current rights.

Soon after, Tom is on a boat to Mongibello, Italy, and he reintroduces himself to Dickie and makes himself acquainted with Dickie’s writer friend, Marge. Marge loves Dickie, while Dickie remains indifferent to her romantically. Tom doesn’t much like Marge hanging about, what with her pining getting in the way of a very close friendship.

Tom doesn’t have any plans to actually convince Dickie to return to America, but he will live off of Dickie’s father’s money as long as he can, and when that runs out… he will figure something out. He always does.

Dickie and Tom get along quite well for awhile, traveling and drinking and talking about art, but soon Tom’s attention begins to wear on Dickie. He becomes more distant, and at times, openly questions Tom’s sexuality. Tom is so angry by this development, at first he doesn’t know what to think, but then:

He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold. If he killed him on this trip, Tom thought, he could simply say that some accident had happened. He could – He had just thought of something brilliant: he could become Dickie Greenleaf himself.

In 1950s Italy, this is not too impossible. Immediately, Tom starts going over the details in his head – how to do it, what he will have to do next, what he will say to everyone. The rest of the book details the carrying out of this plan and how he deals with the complications.

What’s interesting about the character is that you’re not rooting for him, but you’re not exactly hoping he’ll be caught either. Even during a reread, I still hold my breath a bit when I can’t remember how he manages certain details. It’s strange place to be in, becoming invested in this guy’s welfare. It’s not like he’s Dexter and has a personal ethics code, and it’s not as though he’s a beautiful anti-hero – Tom Ripley is just an anxious hanger-on who would rather be anyone but himself.

Tom felt completely comfortable, as he had never felt before at any party he could remember. He behaved as he had always wanted to behave at a party. This was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming over from America. This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person.

There are five Ripley books in total, but I’ve only read the first three so far, each of them multiple times. Soon, I will purchase and read the last two, but for whatever reason, they don’t often pop up in the library. Patricia Highsmith, despite her disdain for people in general, is a fascinating writer, and she does not sacrifice her skills for the sake of suspense. Everything has a reason, and that reason may be unpleasant for “normal” people, but it all makes a certain amount of sense. We can still see from where her characters come, and I always want to see where they end up.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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