Tag Archives: Italy

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). 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.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

9th January 2012

*I received a copy of this book from Random House when I attended a tea there during BEA.

At first glance, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is a book about the men and women behind an international newspaper. In and of itself, that’s a great topic. There’s something intensely romantic – to me – about the newspaper, and I have to admit that I loved this book.

However, The Imperfectionists is more than a complex collection of stories. Each gives a glimpse into the life of an editor, journalist, or publisher, while peripherally adding to characters mentioned in other stories and simultaneously telling the story of the newspaper and its origins. Cyrus Ott, in the early 50s, starts an international (and unnamed) English-speaking newspaper to be near a woman he loves. Rachman doles out Ott’s and his subsequent heirs’ stories, as they continue running a paper with a decreasing subscription and an increasingly difficult market.

What Rachman has done I find interesting on a lot of levels. On one hand, his storytelling is similar to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in terms of each chapter being told by a different character. The subject matter, on the other hand, is quite different. The Imperfectionists takes a stark look at these characters’ lives – an old man, Lloyd Burko, who once wrote for the paper and is now desperate for work, pitching stories without any success; a middle-aged man, writing obituaries and ducking out of work early to be with his young daughter, Pickle; a news editor who shouts “Vigilance!” and builds up his best friend, only to realize he himself is the bigger man; Ruby, a woman so miserable, she sabotages herself at work but who actually loves her job.

I could easily tell you this book has moments of humor, love, and intense sadness, but the best way I can describe The Imperfectionists is to tell you it is an amazingly human novel. The writing pulls forth the mundane and exalts it, indicating that Rachman finds many aspects of life interesting. No one person stands out; instead, together, they work to make a combination short story collection and novel that impressed me, both in the telling and the writing.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“My past – it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving.” – Gerda Erzburger, feminist writer, to obituary writer Gopal.

“A couple of months later, Herman receives an email from Jimmy. It is long and rambling, full of philosophizing and poetic citations. Which is another way of saying he’s in splendid spirits with his daughter in Temple, Arizona.

The email, for no reason Herman can articulate, upsets him. He sees no reason to write back, and perhaps that is why.” – Herman Cohen

Other posts:

The New Dork Review of Books

Rhapsody in Books

Newsline Magazine