Date Published: 1955 (Reprint 2008)
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Mystery; Suspense Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Book Summary: Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath, influencing countless novelists and filmmakers. In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal but grows enraged by Dickie's ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante.
A dark reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors, The Talented Mr. Ripley—immortalized in the 1998 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gywneth Paltrow—is an unforgettable introduction to this debonair confidence man, whose talent for self-invention and calculated murder is chronicled in four subsequent novels.
My Thoughts: Patricia Highsmith has created a fascinating character in Tom Ripley. He’s kind, thoughtful, very intelligent, and often timid, pensive and quiet. He can be extremely charming. But below the surface of this non-threatening man is a very calculating, devious individual. Tom believes the world owes him quite a bit since his childhood was not ideal. He doesn't care if the things he covets belong to other people or are a part of their life. Tom is all the more intriguing because, unlike the people he meets in his daily life, we are privy to his thoughts, opinions and emotions, therefore, we have a much more complete view of the man, for better or worse.
Tom Ripley doesn’t do anything without calculating whether or not his words and behavior will assist him in achieving the kind of lifestyle he believes he deserves. Almost everything Tom says or does is with an eye towards obtaining whatever it is he wants. It's not far into The Talented Mr. Ripley, focusing on Tom’s words, actions and the workings of his mind, before it's clear Tom’s a sociopath. It's unnerving because Tom is sometimes creepy and frightening but more often, because he’s so cunning, we actually feel sorry for him and find ourselves taken in by his charm. Tom Ripley is one of the most riveting characters I’ve met in literature.
Highsmith’s novel is imbued with an atmosphere of suspense. I often found myself on the edge of my seat anticipating Tom’s next move. While he’s quite a smooth talker and disarming, there’s a definite air of danger surrounding him. Words glide off his tongue frequently delivering lies both small and large as he concocts whatever story he expects his listener will fall for. And, when things don’t go according to his plans, Tom often becomes frighteningly unhinged and reacts in ways that surprise even himself. As a result, Highsmith's narrative is rife with tension and the excitement that comes from danger lurking just around the corner.
The suspense and tension throughout the book is also attributable to the very real possibility that we, the reader cannot trust Tom. The more I read, the clearer it became just how devious he is. it seems there's no end to what he'll do to accomplish his goals. Tom imagines what his life could be and then does whatever he must to bring these fantasies to life without regard to other people. Highsmith has created a man so shrewd and crafty that it’s difficult to determine who’s the real Tom Ripley and whether there’s truth in anything he says. I wondered if Tom even knows his true self.
Tom enjoys playing on the readers sympathies by sharing his fears and concerns about possibly getting caught for his criminal behavior. He suggests that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong or hurt anyone, it just sort of happened. But it’s clear Tom doesn’t feel sorry for what he’s done and places blame elsewhere. It seemed he enjoyed pretending he cared just as he seems to enjoy pretending he’s afraid of being caught. Tom also enjoys eluding capture and watching the authorities twist in the wind, unable to figure out what really occurred. As I got closer to the end of the book, Tom became less charming for me and more frightening but still fascinating.
Highsmith’s writing is concise and she had a formidable talent for precisely using words to describe a look or an emotion. She also had a remarkable ability to vividly describe a scene, whether at a cafe table in Paris, a gondola on the canal in Venice or the home in Venice Tom acquired for himself as part of the lifestyle he felt he deserved, that I was able to imagine myself present and viewing the scene first hand. But what I found most profoundly amazing about The Talented Mr. Ripley was Highsmith’s depiction of Tom as a quintessential sociopath, viewing the world through amoral eyes yet charming many of the people he encounters daily. It's a chilling portrayal. In contrast, the other characters in the book are not fully three-dimensional and easily forgettable. It bears noting, although, that they are described through Tom’s eyes which makes me wonder how truthful a picture we get of them. Tom, for instance, didn’t like Marge at all and considers her boring and irritating but I suspect she wasn't at all.
I saw the movie of The Talented Mr. Ripley several years ago and wondered if I‘d be able to separate images of Jude Law and Matt Damon from the characters of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. At first it was difficult for me not to think about the movie as I read. Then I discovered that the movie branches off from the book and tells a different story, one more suited to the cinema and the interests of moviegoers than the story in the book. This difference and Highsmith‘s absorbing and mesmerizing narrative soon had me forgetting the movie and completely focused only on the book.
I highly recommend this very well written book. It’s difficult to put down once you start reading it. I read this novel for the February in Venice Reading Challenge and I'm looking forward to Highsmith's other Ripley books.