Living the High Life in Italy

Azure blue skies, the intense rays of the sun warming up your skin, red swimsuits, a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta made just right. Welcome aboard the 7.47 Thameslink service to Bedford!

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) was my daily commute read last month, and boy, could the world it depicted be any further from the rush hour trains racing through the grey English winter landscape. Despite having (yet again… I do see a pattern forming here) unpleasant protagonists, Highsmith’s well-crafted novel paints an enchanting picture of 1950s Italy with its quaint little villages and buzzing cities, all seemingly crowded with cash-flashing young Americans eager to take on the habits and culture of the Old Continent.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage

The Talented Mr Ripley tells the story of the American Tom Ripley, an ambitious but poor young man with a severe inferiority complex he tries to make up for by impersonating other people, especially those he perceives to be more successful than him, by forging signatures, and being quite frankly a general dick. Not that other people easily notice his dick-ness – he’s highly skilled in making just the right impression. When ship-building magnate Mr Greenleaf the elder suggests that he go to Italy and try to persuade Mr Greenleaf the younger, who spends his time and his father’s money there painting, sailing, and sightseeing, return to the family business in the States, it’s an offer Tom can’t refuse particularly as the police are just about to find out about his shady activities in New York. Soon he is off on a fancy cruise ship, travel naturally paid for by Mr Greenleaf the elder:

Lying in his deckchair, fortified morally by the luxurious surrounding and inwardly by the abundance of well-prepared food, he tried to take an objective look at his past life. The last four years had been for the most part a waste, there was no denying that. A series of haphazard jobs, long perilous intervals of with no job at all and consequent demoralization because of having no money, and then taking up with stupid, silly people in order not to be lonely, or because they could offer him something for a while.

As the passage makes clear, Tom isn’t fond of many people, and even when he is attracted to a person it has more to do with their position and status than with anything else. Finding himself in the village of Mongibello, he infiltrates his way into the company of Dick Greenleaf and his friend-girlfriend Marge Sherwood, who he finds chubby, stupid, and annoying. Although enthralled by Dick’s lifestyle and confidence, Tom’s opinion of him isn’t much more positive: he’s boring, deceitful (!), and his painting is embarrassingly bad. When Mr Greenleaf the elder’s money transmissions to Tom end and Dick and Marge grow disenchanted with their guest, conflict ensues. Add to the mix a murder or two, a couple tight spots for the personality-changing Tom, and lots of lovely depictions of food, scenery, and culture, and you have The Talented Mr Ripley.

I’d watched the 1999 film of the same name, directed by Anthony Minghella, several years previously, and as I’m especially interested in adaptation theory, I watched the film again to compare it to Highsmith’s original text. It’s clear the film is at most inspired by the book. Minghella has kept most of the main characters but changed their personality to the degree that their motivations are completely altered. Tom has been made into a gay man in love with Dickie – in the book, Tom dismisses any suggestion of being queer as ridiculous – while Dickie, although in a relationship with Marge who is played by the non-chubby, gorgeous young Gwyneth Paltrow, spends most of his time courting the village’s girls and is a much more raucous character than the novel’s Dickie the painter. Minor characters have been added, and the ending changed entirely. The film is really best viewed as an independent piece of work, definitely still worth watching if only for the even more gorgeous young Jude Law.

jude law

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Tom Ripley do the 1950s look

This book was a lovely little surprise. I hadn’t realised it had actually been published in the 1950s, that there were two other books in the series on Tom Ripley, and that another one of her books had been made into the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train.

Highsmith’s characters are well-crafted, and the story has just enough suspense to keep you waiting for Tom’s next move. As you may have already guessed, I particularly loved the passages describing Tom’s life in Southern Europe:

He bought two evening newspapers, tucked them under his arm and walked on, over a little arched bridge, through a long street hardly six feet wide full of leather shops and men’s shirt shops, past windows glittering with jewelled boxes that spilled out necklaces and rings like the boxes Tom has always imagined that treasures spilled out of in fairy tales. He liked the fact that Venice had no cars. It made the city human. The streets were like veins, he thought, and the people were the blood, circulating everywhere. He took another street back and crossed the great quadrangle of San Marco’s for the second time. Pigeons everywhere, in the air, in the light of shops – even at night, pigeons walking along under people’s feet like sightseers themselves in their home town!

Viva Italia, I say!




The Talented Mr Ripley reviews

The New York Times (by Jeannette Winterson)
Persephone Magazine

Listen to Patricia Highsmith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (1979)


patriciahighsmith2_recortadoPatricia Highsmith (1921–1995) was an American novelist and short story writer, known for her psychological thrillers, which led to more than two dozen film adaptations.