The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (Books 1 and 2 of 20 Books of Summer)

It’s a little odd to spend so much time with Tom Ripley. I alternate between being awed by his cool level-headedness, able to think his way out of any incriminating situation, and dismayed by his detachment from people. From women especially.

It seems that Marge, with her “gourdlike figure”, especially annoys him. I can’t help but think Tom is attracted to Dickie Greenleaf, whose father has sent Tom to Italy in order to bring home. Marge and Dickie are living a most comfortable life, by the sea, the only two Americans in Mongibello. They have seafood, and wine, and lazy hours to spend in the sun until Tom Ripley arrives and takes it all away. He inveigles himself into Dickie’s life, and before long, the two are living together, planning trips to Naples and Rome without Marge.

Tom lives in apparent envy and loathing, both vying for attention in his relationship to Dickie. He tries on Dickie’s suits, his shirts, and longs for the two rings on Dickie’s hand. It is somewhat surprising, then, that he drowns Dickie and abandons the boat they were on, spending the rest of the novel evading detection from Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, the police, and almost from Freddie (a most obnoxious friend of Dickie’s). I almost became confused myself trying to follow the leads and the responses Tom gives in explanation, for he does not readily falter.

My edition from Everyman’s Library contains Ripley Under Ground following The Talented Mr. Ripley. This novel is not so much about Ripley himself under ground, as whom he puts there. The plot revolves around a painter, Philip Derwatt, who no longer exists. Either he has died, or is living incognito elsewhere, but he has left his friends with an art gallery and no more paintings to sell. Hence, Bernard takes up the task of mimicking Derwatt’s art, quite satisfactorily until an American collector notices the difference. He insists that the painting he owns is not authentic, having something to do with the lavender shade that one artist used, but the the other did not.

I found Ripley Under Ground a bit tedious. The tension is there, along with Tom’s psychotic self preservation. But, the novel drags on longer than it should. We know there is fraud in the art world, we know that a body has been buried under ground and how it got there; the problem is that three quarters of the way to the conclusion, we no longer care. We, of course, meaning me.

Belatedly, I now realize that I have begun 20 Books of Summer before Summer officially begins. Perhaps I will be forgiven with The Brothers Karamazov included in my list? Cathy did say it could count for three, so I’ll take that as permission for a head start. 😉

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The white, taut sheets of his berth on the train seemed the most wonderful luxury he had ever known. He caressed them with his hands before he turned the light out. And the clean blue-grey blankets, the spanking efficiency of the little black net over his head – Tom had an ecstatic moment when he thought of all the pleasures that lay before him now with Dickie’s money, other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases, shirts, years of freedom, years of pleasure. Then he turned the light out and put his head down and almost at once fell asleep, happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.

I gotta tell you, that would not be my immediate reaction after doing what Thomas Ripley had done. No, sirree, if I’d thrown a man overboard after smashing him on the head with an oar, and stealing his identity, I would not be experiencing a happy, content, and utterly confident sleep.

It is therefore with wonder that I continued on in this novel. Like watching a slow motion train wreck, I grappled with my fascination in the plot and my horror at Tom’s behavior. How can he possibly think he will get away with it? How can he manage the deception long term? How can he tolerate the guilt?

But, when I came to this part, it made a tiny bit of sense:

He went on packing. This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.

That gets me thinking. For haven’t you hated something about yourself at least once? Haven’t you wished there was something about yourself you could change? If you had the chance, would you swap identities with someone else? Would you leave New York for Rome? (The later? I would in a heartbeat!)

None of us would kill another. But, the idea of abandoning one’s identity, in one way or another, is a little compelling to me. It makes me grasp just how talented, albeit psychotic, Mr. Ripley is.

Find another review from Richard, who was the first person to make me want to read this novel which I did for my own personal pleasure as well as Carl‘s RIP V.