The Talented Mr. Ripley

“He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.”

“His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

It’s not necessarily unusual for a character with dubious morality to be the focus of the story, but what sets The Talented Mr. Ripley apart is the nature of Patricia Highsmith’s crime and criminal.

Tom Ripley is dissatisfied with his life and jumps at the chance when Mr. Greenleaf offers him a trip to Italy to coax his son back home. He hopes that Europe will give him a chance to start over and live like he always dreamed. Tom becomes fascinated with sophisticated Dickie Greenleaf and will do anything to prevent losing his esteem, molding himself after Dickie. So when Marge Sherwood threatens to pull Dickie away from the friendship for good, Tom uses his skills at impersonation to take matters into his own hands. Once he starts, however, the job becomes much more complicated than he ever expected.

That’s not my best summary, but as the title suggests The Talented Mr. Ripley is driven by character just as much as plot. Tom is an extremely complex and gifted young man whose downfalls are boredom and despondency. He had a troubled childhood under the watch of a stern aunt; his biggest goal, it seems sometimes, is just for people to like him. He suffers from a crushing lack of self-esteem except for the confidence he gains when taking thrilling risks. As a reader I found myself drawn to Tom, pitying and therefore liking him. At the same time, however, there must be something in him that dispels other characters, perhaps his occasional latent distaste for humanity.

Because we come to understand Tom’s character and see things from his perspective, the events of the book seem almost a natural progression. This isn’t quite a mystery but definitely suspense. I was shocked to find myself rooting for Tom, worriedly scanning his facade for any potential cracks. In any other investigation I would be praying for the police to make that last miraculous leap of logic to save the day, but here was quite the opposite. The main reason for this is Highsmith’s talent. Tom muses that “he didn’t want to be a murderer. Sometimes he could absolutely forget that he had murdered.” I kept hoping that if everything blew over he would have gained the confidence to hold his head high and put this behind him, even though the existence of sequels suggests the opposite.

I think the other equally important reason was how much I respected Tom’s talent and planning. His acting is so comprehensive that no one seems suspect a thing. As mystery lovers we are shown repeatedly that every perfect crime has a misstep, but just as sleuths such as Holmes enjoyed their adversaries we can admire a man with the chance to beat the odds for success.

I almost feel as if I’ve been psychologically manipulated after reading this, and it’s an odd feeling. I admire Highsmith just as much as I do Ripley, but I think I need to wait a bit before considering one of the sequels or else I’ll start advocating crime.

This is another one in the crime category for the Guardian Challenge; it’s also on the 1001 Books list, and in my opinion deservedly so.

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 10:17 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love the Talented Mr. Ripley. I think Highsmith was a master in manipulation and that’s why anyone who reads the Ripley novels just immediately dislikes him and finds him creepy. All her novels have a sense of unease and trepidation but somehow we can’t stop reading. The sequels are very, very good. You must try them sometime!

  2. Something’s Dishy–Thanks for the recommendation! I do want to read her other novels, just not right away. I think my problem was that I didn’t dislike Ripley, even though I knew I should!

  3. […] The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (mystery/crime) […]

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