This is the kind of story that would probably have worked very differently for someone who didn't already have a vague cultural knowledge of its workings -- the same way that The Empire Strikes Back must've been for people who didn't know its major twist. The problem with getting through a literary (or filmic) life without knowing the major twist of The Talented Mr. Ripley, is that said twist comes at the halfway point, thereby leaving it up to each person who summarizes the plot whether they should only mention the original setup or move forward. (And just as the plot feels different if you have a vague idea of its arc, so too is the second half of the book affected by knowing that Highsmith wrote a few more books about the character -- it lets you pre-suppose the ending a bit, which is too bad.) I am very anti-spoiler, as a rule, and so I'm gonna try
to avoid them... but seriously, if you're thinking about reading this book just go out and do it before you go reading anything else about
This book is essentially a strange take on the crime stories of its period (the 50s). You've got the ambiguity, suspense, materialism, and violence, but the emphasis is slightly skewed. More ambiguity, less machismo, more exploration of sexuality, less sex, more suspense, less actually happening. That last point is especially important because it really is a book in which a lot of nothing happens, but that nothing is punctuated with acts of strangeness or violence that color everything afterward, and make those times of nothing feel suspenseful. I was never bored, certainly.
And Ripley's certainly a weird central character for a 1950s crime novel. Much has been written about his psychosis and sexuality and blah blah blah, but I think what makes him most interesting is his desperately American feeling that all he needs for his life to be wonderful, instead of the terrible life he has when we meet him, is for him to have lots of money and no time-consuming job, and that damn it that goal is worth anything. Oh sure, he gets to hob-knob with rich people, but he doesn't much like them, doesn't seem to have much use for friends at all. I never saw an author make sitting around doing nothing, all alone, for months, seem so... wonderful. For the most part we know it's kind of pathetic, and we know that material wealth is unfulfilling, and I certainly know that I these aren't the things that would make me happy, but in Ripley's messed up head, it's really all he needs, and he seems to derive genuine joy and peace from such a life. It becomes chilling, especially when a reader finds themselves hoping that he'll be able to hold onto it and rooting for good, worthwhile things to not
happen so that this will be the case. It's quite an affecting morally ambiguous game that Highsmith plays with her readers -- kind of sickening, but also great.