Book Review: The Talented Mister Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

I hadn’t seen the film when I began Ripley so I had no expectations going in, I hadn’t even read any reviews or criticism. I knew it was billed as a psychological thriller and somewhat of a mystery so I was surprised by what I found.

Ripley tells the story of a young man, the titular Tom Ripley, from his life as a confidence man in 1950’s New York through a stint in Italy with Marge and Dickey, a pair of young American tourists, and a period of impersonating Dickey after his murder.

Major spoilers ahead. If you don’t like those, you can watch the movie at least and I won’t ruin the book for you.

My absolute first reaction after finishing the last page was outrage! He got away with it! Two murders in cold blood, and he slipped away not only scott free but with wealth and respect. Every time the police confront him or his friends get suspicious, I waited on the edge of my seat, trying my hardest not to skip ahead, for him to get arrested or confronted. Every time he slipped away, through either his extreme talent for lies and conviction or sheer dumb luck. I hated the way he crowed over his success; his only care for the lives and families of his victims was that it would make his life more difficult.

After I finished the book I read some reviews to see how others felt and was astonished to hear him called a ‘likable sociopath.’ Tom Ripley is not likable. Tom Ripley practices facial expressions to convey emotions specifically to evoke specific responses in his audience. He prefers his own company to that of almost anyone else. He feels wronged by a world that does not afford him the privileges he sees as his due. He murders with joyful premeditation in order to right said perceived wrongs and murders again when his new fake life is threatened. He lies and lies and lies and does it very very well, so well that not only does he avoid suspicion for the two murders he committed, he ends up with his first victim’s trust fund and assets given freely by the victim’s family. It’s absurd and obscene and irritating and deliciously unsettling.

After I read the book and a few reviews, I watched the 1999 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Suddenly the likable part made sense. While literary Tom is deliberate and premeditated, cinematic Tom is very nearly a victim of circumstance. He is reactionary, his victims are less likable, he is part of a persecuted minority, he feels sadness and love, and of course we feel for him. He has done awful things and covered up for them but he didn’t choose to do them, they just… happened. With this shading of events, it is reasonable to have sympathy for him and root for his success.

Setting aside my emotional reactions for a moment, I want to commend the author for her absolutely perfect, chilling description of Tom’s thoughts and feelings as he practices his art: the art of lies and impersonation. He is The Talented Mister Ripley because his skill set is broad and impressive. A handwriting expert, he can, with practice, forge nearly any signature, writing style, and syntax, even down to the errors in spelling and grammar. His sociopathy means that he rarely experiences emotions so he studies them in others and practices mimicking them to great effect. He is a careful collector of arts, performances, experiences, languages, literature, with good taste and the attitude to enjoy totally every moment of each experience. Without the fact of murder and deception in the mix, Tom wouldn’t be such a bad guy, actually, and I’d probably enjoy hanging out with him. It’s quite likely there is someone like him among my clients and friends. Yours, too.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of Tom’s personality is his absolute cheerfulness when taking his friend Dickey out for a boating trip, knowing full well that while on the water he will murder his friend, assume his identity, and forge his signature to live a life of leisure and pleasure. Perhaps even more disturbing is how much I identified with the pleasure he takes in that life. As he sits alone at cafes in Rome and watches people go by, sips excellent wine but never gets drunk, meticulously plans trips all over Europe, and treats himself to nice meals, I see some of my own life. I sit alone in my incall, gazing out the window or reading interesting novels, sipping wine or coffee, plan trips to Hawaii or LA or New York, Imagine myself in silks and warm sunshine, and of course treat myself to the occasional fine dining experience. I don’t fault him for his desire for and appreciation of a life of luxury. I do, though, like to think mine is a more honest way of supporting that life and that I’m not quite so extravagant as to tool around Europe for the rest of my entire life.

And that’s not the only personality trait I identify with. Tom gets restless. He fakess his first victim’s will and squirrels it away. It gives him everything. He has murdered two people, forged many signatures, impersonated one victim for three months, tricked everyone who knows him into thinking his victim killed himself, been under suspicion from the police and even talked to a private detective, all of whom made up a different story int heir head, though they were all so close to the truth. And after a while, when he’s nearly in the clear, he opens the will. Because he’s bored. Because there’s something in the danger of possibly getting caught and because he’s bored and wants the money. I sometimes get bored and want the money. Of course, instead of murdering someone and forging their will, I advertise in new places, write blog posts and newsletters, come up with new schemes that I never follow through on, and plan short trips to amuse myself. But it’s still a disturbing echo of something I feel.

Overall, The Talented Mister Ripley is really a great book. It’s both a page turner and a thought provoking story. I enjoyed contrasting the film and the novel. It’s written well, it’s chilling and infuriating both. It is an excellent novel with the perfect antihero at the center and it has the advantage of being short for those who want a quick read but also having sequels for those of us who like to prolong our experience. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it but if you don’t thats cool, too. Now you know what it’s all about and can sound smart at parties, haha!