The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

26th June 2012

*I borrowed this book from my brother while I was in NYC & read it on the subway.

Tom Ripley is a bit of a snake. He lives in New York, bumming money from an aunt he detests and running a fraud, just for the fun of it. He’s a bit concerned he’s been caught when he thinks someone is following him, but it turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Dickie Greenleaf fancies himself a painter and has taken off for the coast of Italy, Mongibello to be exact, to paint and drink his days away. Dad isn’t amused. He runs a business he wants Dickie to run, and his wife is very ill. Though Dickie sends the occasional letter, he has given no indication that he’ll head back home any time soon. When Tom’s offered an all-expense-paid trip to Mongibello to lure Dickie home, he is as happy as the proverbial cat with its cream. He’s off to Europe on another man’s dime…legally. But Dickie isn’t having any of it, and Tom decides to work this from a slightly different angle. What if he can become pals with Dickie and live off him instead? The only problem is Marge. A writer in love with Dickie, Marge is always around, and she isn’t Tom’s biggest fan. It is evident that Tom’s jealousy and sense of entitlement will be his downfall, but he might just be sly enough to get away with murder and impersonating the man he’s killed

Not having seen the 1999 film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel, but my brother had asked several times why I hadn’t read it, so I picked it up to read on the subway while I was in the city.

Tom is quite easily one of the scariest characters I’ve ever come across (I’d put him up there with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume).ร‚ย Why is Tom so scary? First of all, his delusions of grandeur are quite shocking. He honestly thinks he is meant for the high life. He doesn’t understand why Dickie would deny his birthright when it’s so simple for him. Dickie doesn’t have to work for his money but pulls a hefty allowance from his father. The irony is that Tom doesn’t work either, spending money grudgingly sent from his aunt. The difference? Dickie comes from money, and Tom doesn’t. Tom also expects Dickie and Marge will love him, so when neither is enamored with him, his disappointment and anger are stark and aggressive. Dickie warms to him, but Marge never likes him and isn’t afraid to tell Dickie.

However, I didn’t dislike Tom as much as I marveled at his audacity. Who was this man? How could anyone expect what he expected from life? Plus, this novel is written in such a way that Tom seems innocuous, murderer or no. He doesn’t kill in self defense, yet Highsmith doesn’t mete out justice in the way you anticipate. In fact, the suspense comes in as Tom goes about fixing his life and juggling the lies he’s told, always a few steps ahead of the authorities. I would argue that the only real punishment is that Tom must stop impersonating someone he is not, going back to being “old Tom.”

The implication is that Tom’s craftiness and Dickie’s flaws cancel out one another, as though the fact that Dickie is callous and unfeeling makes his death deserved in some way while Tom’s sly nature and adaptability prove him far worthier.

For a suspenseful novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley was a really interesting psychological adventure as well, undercut by themes of homophobia and a skewed morality, making me curious as to what Ms. Highsmith’s other books are like.

Read this: to escape to Europe/follow a well-mannered killer/delve deeply into a narcissist’s psyche/before you watch the film.

  • agignac

    I have to admit, the movie of this disturbed me so much that I can’t even imagine reading the novel! I’m sure it would be a thousand times more disturbing!

    • My brother said the film is really different, and honestly, this one was more a question of “Why am I not MORE disturbed?” it’s an interesting way to tackle a novel.

  • Excellent review of a book that I have yet to read! I saw the movie and loved it. I felt that it was very well done and it sounds like it stuck very close to the book in feel. Do you plan to see the movie now?

    • Ti – Thanks so much! I really do want to watch the movie now. My brother said it’s pretty different toward the end, but I’m still really curious. Plus, I’ve heard the movie is gorgeous.

  • I saw the film a really long time ago and I kind of didn’t get it, and I bought the book earlier this year, and now I’m really excited to read it!

    • Well then, I’m so glad you have it on your shelf! Enjoy. It’s a really quick, enjoyable read, but it’s deceptive. It will certainly stick with you.

  • I read this about a thousand years ago (OK, maybe twenty) so my memories of it are hazy, but I remember liking it despite not liking Tom at all. He felt so entitled and I thought, “The world doesn’t owe you anything.” But the book held my interest because there are people like that in the world, I don’t mind antiheroes as long as the writing is strong, and Highsmith did a good job of getting inside his head. A good piece of advice to writers and actors who play villains is that they can’t judge those characters, they have to find a way to get inside them and believe what they’re doing is right. The way Highsmith wrote Tom, he totally thought his actions were justified and that was interesting.

    The movie IS gorgeous. You will swoon and want to return to Italy immediately. Plus, Jude Law is probably the prettiest he’s ever been on film in this movie. There’s also an old French movie called PURPLE NOON that was based on this book. Alain Delon played Tom (one of my earliest crushes was on Delon because my mom liked French movies). It’s worth checking out.

    • Yes, yes, yes! Tom isn’t likeable, yet…there was a certain aspect of his personality I admired. I know it sounds really odd, but he was so incredibly sure of himself. And you’re right, there ARE so many people out there like him. He’s right, no matter what. I also like that you point out that you can’t judge the villain, and Highsmith certainly doesn’t.

      And I will be adding both of these films to my future viewing list. Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • teresareads

    I really need to read more Highsmith. I’ve only read this and The Glass Cell, and I liked them both a lot. Her writing fascinates me because of how she gets into the heads of people who do such appalling things and makes the reader care.

    The Glass Cell is really interesting as an indictment of the criminal justice system and the way prison can turn people into criminals. It’s a chilling book.

    • Is The Glass Cell a Ripley novel? Norton tweeted me today to say the next novel isn’t quite as believable, so I’m curious which other Ripley novel I should read.

      I’ve heard The Price of Salt is one I can’t miss.

      • teresareads

        The Glass Cell isn’t a Ripley novel. I think all the Ripley books have Ripley in the title. I want to read more of those too, but I’ve seen a film of Ripley’s Game, and that storyline is more, um, extreme. I’ve heard good things about Strangers on a Train, too–and I already love the film.

        • Ah, Strangers on a Train. It was only in the fall when #hitchfest watched it that I realized Highsmith had written that. Now I really want to read it.

  • Jason Rice

    Fantastic review, you should get paid for this…

    • Coming from you, that is indeed high praise. Thanks so much, Jason.

  • heidenkind

    Interesting! I have seen the movie, and you should definitely watch it, although it goes on for too long. But I can tell you just from the synopsis they did tweak it a bit from the book. In the movie Tom’s a guy on the make, but the hard-working hoofer kind. It’s more like he starts the movie out as a good guy, but then meets Dickie who’s totally worthless and just decides to take what’s Dickie’s for himself.

    • I almost started this comment out with “Interesting!” completely not realizing that was the start of your comment. Glad I read it again. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But really, that’s an interesting way to portray Tom, and I wonder if the director thought he’d be more sympathetic that way.

      No, in the book, he’s definitely a schemer start to finish.

      • heidenkind

        Interesting. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Yeah, they definitely wanted to make him sympathetic. It’s all about class and how Tom is desperate to belong in Dickie’s world. Very Hitchcock-meets-Great-Gatsby.

  • I’ve always meant to read this but I saw the movie when it first came out, and I planned to wait a little bit so the movie didn’t come to life in my mind as I read. Thinking about it now, thirteen years later, it probably would anyway, so I really need to just get over it and read it no matter what. I’m sure it’s a ton better than the movie; in fact, while it was fairly interesting, I think I was more captivated by the scenery of Italy. Which, you know, I’m a wee bit obsessed with.

    • That’s the only reason I’ve hesitated watching the film. It’s been three years since my last trip to Italy. I’m afraid I’ll jump a plane and never come back. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Sara (wordyevidenceofthefact.b

    Ooh…Perfume. Loved – LOVED – that amazingly smart and Interesting! book. Thanks for reminding me of it and for tempting me with this one, even though I’m not likely to read it since I’ve already seen the movie. Spoilt.

    • Man, it is a fascinating novel, isn’t it? Disturbing yet beautiful on so many levels.

      And from what I’ve heard, the book shouldn’t be spoiled because you’ve seen the movie. Apparently, they’re pretty different.