The Talented Mr. Ripley

My mystery book group met last night to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a book that indicates we are branching out a bit from mystery fiction to crime fiction more generally. Detectives appear in Highsmith’s book, but only briefly, and they aren’t very good. They are pretty foolish, in fact. The real star of the book is Tom Ripley, the murderer.

What a wonderful, difficult, bizarre book this is. I loved it, but it left me feeling anxious and vaguely guilty, as though I’d done something wrong myself. The reason for this is that the story is told from a very close third-person perspective that leaves the reader in Tom’s consciousness the entire time, with no relief. It’s such a disturbing consciousness that I was both fascinated by the person that Tom is, and deeply unsettled.

As the novel opens, Tom finds himself followed by a man who turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Tom was worried that the man was following him because of the tax fraud Tom had recently committed (he sent out letters to people telling them they owed more in taxes — just for fun and to see what would happen), but it turns out he wants Tom to travel to Europe to try to bring his son Dickie back home to run the family business. Tom soon figures out that even though he doesn’t know Dickie as well as his father thinks he does, this is a great opportunity to live in the lap of luxury for a while.

He meets Dickie in a small, coastal Italian town and quickly becomes a part of his life. He and Dickie’s friend Marge spend their days swimming, sunbathing, and eating long and luxurious meals. Tensions soon develop, though: Tom is devoted to Dickie but jealous of Marge, while Marge decides that Tom is a bad influence on Dickie and treats him coldly and suspiciously. This love triangle of a sort (Marge is in love with Dickie, although he appears not to return the feeling, and Tom is obsessed with Dickie to a degree that is obvious but ambiguous in nature) gets more and more complicated until one day Tom, in a fit of jealousy and worried that Dickie is pushing him away, kills him in horrifically bloody fashion in a boat on the ocean.

What’s so awful about this murder is that it’s so senseless, so horrible, and yet to Tom it’s simply an unfortunate action that he had little control over. Once the idea entered his mind, he knew there was little he could do except follow through. He’s not remorseful at all, just cautious about what to do next. What he does is become Dickie himself, stepping into his shoes, forging his signature to collect his money, and living the life that Dickie might have lived.

Tom not only lacks any moral sense, but he lacks any sense of himself at all; he’s a cipher, an empty shell who is incapable of caring for another person. He is extremely isolated. The people around him are pawns in his personal game or they are nobodies to be gotten rid of if necessary. What Tom has — or what he wants to have — in place of any sense of self or any emotional connection to others is objects and money. Once he has taken Dickie’s place, he enjoys himself extremely well wearing Dickie’s clothes, eating fabulous meals alone in expensive restaurants, and traveling across Europe seeing the sights. As long as he has the objects that make up the right kind of identity, it doesn’t matter to him that the identity is a sham. For him, it’s real, or, at any rate, it’s enough.

He slips into the role of Dickie frighteningly easily, and not only that, but he quickly forgets what it was like to be Tom:

It was a good idea to practice jumping into his own character again, because the time might come when he would need to in a matter of seconds, and it was strangely easy to forget the exact timbre of Tom Ripley’s voice. He conversed with Marge until the sound of his own voice in his ears was exactly the same as he remembered it.

It’s possible to say that this is a psychological exploration of a sociopath, but I think the book resists psychological explanations and is therefore even more chilling. The narrator explains that Tom lost his parents when he was young and that he was raised by an emotionally abusive aunt. But this history is told so quickly, with so few details, that it’s almost as if Highsmith is playing with our need for an explanation, making fun of it by providing us with one so unsatisfactory. There’s no real reason for Tom, no way of explaining him or of avoiding him.

As other members of my book group said, I loved the book, but I don’t necessarily want to read more of the book in the series or even more of Highsmith’s work at all. It’s good — very good — but so disturbing it’s hard to subject oneself to it.


Filed under Books, Fiction

14 responses to “The Talented Mr. Ripley

  1. It’s funny: another friend of mine mentioned that “not compelled to read more” feeling. However, I was immediately compelled to read more (despite obviously being disturbed to the point of having nightmares) in a way I’m often not. I found it fascinating that Highsmith could have so well drawn such a character, as well as getting the reader so involved with such a despicable person. I’m quite curious to see if she can keep it up. After writing my post, I did some online research that has inclined me even more to read on. When I do, I’ll let you know what I think.


  2. Tom is completely without morals but he is such a fascinating character–it’s very unsettling I agree. I’d actually like to read more of Highsmith. I read this Ripley book years ago, and while I’m not sure I want to read more of her Tom Ripley books I wouldn’t mind rereading this one. I have a feeling the others pale in comparison, though I could be wrong. The film made from the book was very well done, too.


  3. Nan

    I’ve just read the one also, and don’t really want to read more either. It is an amazing book, but I think one book is all I need about that fellow! I believe she also wrote Strangers on a Train. That film, and The Talented Mr. Ripley were both excellent.


  4. Just read Richard’s comments about the book too. I am a fan of Highsmith but completely agree with your assessment of her work as disturbing. Not just the immersion in the mind of a sociopath but that jarring sense of peril you feel while reading as if Ripley’s fate could be your own if he is caught. Makes me anxious. In a good way.

    Like Ripley novels but prefer Highsmith’s work outside the series especially The Price of Salt and The Glass Cell. But as I commented at Richard’s, avoid that new Highsmith bio unless you have a fondness for extremely unlikable people.


  5. I am drawn to Patricia Highsmith’s autobiography, even though I haven’t read any of her books and I thought I’d never want to because y’know creepy and scary. Now I want to try this book, although like you I might not make it any further (and I might read it only in bright sunlight). The film is rather odd, but then it’s Matt Damon so what do you expect?


  6. I have to admit, your review greatly intrigues me! And this is coming from someone who saw the movie when it was out in theaters and absolutely HATED it! But your review makes me think there’s more depth to the novel, and I could see myself being riveted by it. I had never thought I’d want to read the book after seeing the movie, but you have me reconsidering…


  7. What a fabulous review, Dorothy! You’ve written it quite beautifully. I had hoped to read this book alongside you all and I haven’t got to it. But I will certainly give it a go – I’m very interested in Highsmith’s writing.


  8. Thanks for the perceptive review. Sounds like the book has more to say about Tom than the film could reveal, as usual. But then again, the visual interpretation is effective because it’s engaging. Have you seen the movie adaptation? Wonder what you think about it in comparison to the book?


  9. I’m intrigued. I’ve heard the book was good but didn’t know anything about it. Now I’m going to have to read it sometime but I will mentally prepare myself first 🙂


  10. zhiv

    Sounds like you’re ready to run back to Chandler. Highsmith is challenging but great. This is a fine review and it makes me want to know more about her and her work. She has been making progress in the zeitgeist for a long while and a lot of people read her. It’s been awhile since I read this book and I don’t know that I ever read anything else. Looking up the publication date (1955) puts it right in the middle of the postwar sweet spot. I’m not sure why you mention resisting the psychological label, as it seems like sociopathic killer does the trick pretty nicely. And, with that date, it seems like the dark side of the existentialist discussion, with political/economic overtones of adopting some one else’s life, identity, and fortune.


  11. I have avoided reading this one. It seemed just too depressing.


  12. Interesting that you & Richard ended up reading & reviewing this simultaneously! I’m very intrigued by Highsmith, and have The Price of Salt on my to-be-read shelf, just waiting for the right moment. I can really get into some dark humor (which Richard stressed) & disconcerting character studies (which you stress), so I have high hopes that if I hit her in the right mood, I will love her. Thanks for the reminder!


  13. Definitely sounds like you have to be in the right frame of mind for this book–I did pick it up, and it’s now a proud member of my TBR shelf, but I’ll have to sandwich it between lighter reads. I really had no idea what this book was about–other than it has a great title–so thanks for the insightful review, which also serves as a bit of a warning, at least for me.


  14. Pvreader (Emily) — definitely do let me know what you find. Hobgoblin read a bunch of her short stories and really liked them (he found them as freaky as the novel), but no one in the book group has read any more Ripley novels. We were wondering where she could go next and still keep the series interesting.

    Danielle — I’m wondering just how good the Ripley sequels are, but I’m not willing to read them myself to find out! As I said above, Hobgoblin enjoyed her short stories quite a lot. I wouldn’t mind rereading the first Ripley at some point — I think it’s good enough to reread, definitely.

    Nan — yeah, she did write Strangers on a Train, which is an awesome movie, and it would be fun to read the book. It’s interesting how lots of people (although not everyone) feel no need to read further, as good as the first book is!

    Frances — I’ve heard that Highsmith was a rather difficult and unlikable person — that makes the whole thing more interesting, I think. It’s disturbing but also fascinating when people who can write very, very well are very unlikable and unsavory. Interesting that you enjoyed her other books so much. Perhaps I’ll check them out some day.

    Jodie — I saw the film a while ago, and liked it fine, but it would be interesting to see again, now that I know the book. Apparently they changed quite a bit and not necessarily in a good way (people in my book group didn’t like it a lot). I’m not one for creepy books generally, but now and then they can be fun!

    Steph — oh, yes, reconsider! They did change a lot in the movie, and the book has MUCH more depth, not least of which is the fact that Highsmith gives us a very strong feeling of being close to Tom’s mind, which is very, very creepy and not something you can capture in a movie.

    Litlove — thank you! When you do get to the book, I’m very eager to hear what you think. There’s so much there that’s interesting to ponder.

    Arti — I have seen the movie, but I don’t remember it well enough to compare. I did have Gwyneth Paltrow in my mind whenever the book talked about the Marge character, though. But yes, the book definitely has more to say about Tom than the movie can, since Highsmith gets us way deeper into his mind than is comfortable to go.

    Stefanie — yes, do mentally prepare yourself for it, but it really is worth reading, and I hope you do get to it!

    Zhiv — thank you! Hobgoblin is reading some Chandler short stories now and enjoying them. I’m not sure I’ll get there soon, but he is getting lots of attention in our house anyway! Apparently she was a very difficult person and unlikable in a lot of ways, and yes, it would be great to know more. About the psychological label, it’s just that the “explanation” she gives is so lame, it almost seems like a joke. The book does have a strong psychological interest, yes, but she’s not positing any neat causes for why Tom is as he is. And yes, the book definitely seems to be taking part in the existentialist talk of the day, with all the questions about whether Tom really has a self or not and the extent to which he can create an entirely new self out of nothing (or whether he’s just nothing, a void — scary).

    Grad — depressing, yes, but kind of fun because of how well-written it is. I suppose I’m one to like that kind of fun 🙂

    Emily — I’d really love to know what you think of The Price of Salt; I’m curious about the range of things she writes about, since Hobgoblin says her stories are similar in vein to the Ripley story.

    JaneGS — well, I hope I didn’t warn you away, but if you sandwich it between lighter reads, it could work well. It’s always good to be prepared, right?


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