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).Â 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.