Old School Book Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

by thiszine

by Patricia Highsmith

W. W. Norton & Company
(June 2008, Originally pub. 1955, $13.95, 273 pages)

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith is a book that stays with me. I’ve read it twice. Knowing the plot twists and secrets the second time around did very little to take away the tension and suspense of this psychological thriller.

Tom Ripley is a 23-year-old living in New York City in the 1950s. He is liar and and a schemer with vague aspirations for better life. In Tom’s vision, better equals wealthy and includes every aspect of the lives of his affluent associates, including their sneering opinions of Ripley himself. He clings to people who barely tolerate his presence – a fact of which he’s well aware, yet he chooses to expose himself to disdain and contempt rather than seek out a more welcoming circle of companions. Funny, this is exactly what I believed The Great Gatsby might have thought of the clingy Nick had Fitzgerald gave him a voice!

Tom Ripley is not above any means of gaining a foothold to his vision of betterment. He extorts random people by impersonating an agent of the IRS and although his endeavor does not bring in any great sum of money, it is more of a glimpse into what Ripley is capable of doing. By targeting unassuming, run-of-the-mill, hard working people most likely to quickly pay a small fee to the IRS, Highsmith brilliantly portrays Ripley as clever, calculating and completely amoral. He knows the difference between right and wrong but he is utterly indifferent to either. This makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Ripley’s fortune takes an interesting turn at an opportune time. He is hired by wealthy ship builder, Herbert Greenleaf, with the mission to persuade Greenleaf’s son, Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf, to return to the proverbial helm of his father’s ship-building empire. Dickie’s life of ease in Mongibello, Italy displeases his wealthy father, who believes Dickie’s bohemian lifestyle is counterproductive to the heir of a shipbuilding magnate. Ripley, while only a mere acquaintance of Dickie’s, sees this opportunity as a new beginning and quite possibly the better life of his dreams.

Ripley, loaded with good intentions and bank-rolled by Herbert Greenleaf, finds Dickie in Mongibello in the company of Marge Sherwood, a sometimes friend, sometimes lover. Ripley’s envy and desire for a life he can never achieve resurface as the bottom quickly falls out of his well-intentioned goodie basket.

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith takes the reader on a dark roller-coaster ride of deception, jealousy, deceit and murder, followed by evasion, more deceit, and more murder. Rather than chilling, senseless violence, Highsmith carefully crafts a mesmerizing tale of pursuit and near-miss as Ripley manages to stay just ahead of capture. He is crafty and calm even when in a panic. For the reader, the result is riveting.

In getting into the eerily empty room that is Tom Ripley’s conscience, I never thought I could sympathize with such a cold and calculating character, yet I was captivated. The story spirals horrifically and the building tension was incredible. I read this book well into the wee hours of the night because I simply could not put it down! It electrified me. There is not one fiber of my being that sympathizes with someone who harms others yet I could not bear the thought of Ripley’s failure. Wow!

Written in the 1950′s, Highsmith exquisitely captures the sense of time and place in New York City and of the enviable life of a wealthy American abroad. She describes in lovely detail the nuances that made life so wonderful for those Ripley admired that it made me want to go back and live there too. Her writing is elegant and clear, simple yet with the depth of distinction to deprive the reader from a restful night’s sleep. Sweetman’s advice: You must read this book!


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