This book is a classic for a reason. Groundbreaking in its time, its protagonist is a clever, amoral man whom we can’t help but root for, even as we despise him.
Or maybe I’m speaking for myself. I wanted Tom Ripley to succeed. I shared his paranoia that he would be caught phishing for IRS payments. When Tom meets Dickie and Marge, and has almost palpable envy for their easy money and easy lifestyle, I can’t help but feel for him. Why does one ne’er do well get to lounge about on the beach playing with boats and ordering around servants while the talented Mr. Ripley is consigned to a life of poverty? Even if you aren’t the sort of person to kill without remorse (I know I’m not that sort) you can’t help but understand his motivations.
I think that’s the major strength of this book. You can understand Ripley’s motivations. First you see his contempt for Dickie and Freddie, you see how little regard he has for Marge. The blurb about this book makes a big deal about how Dickie’s lack of regard for Marge caused blah, blah, but that’s not really an issue. I’d never seen something about this book that brought about the homosexual undertones either, but that for me was an added point of sympathy in Ripley’s favor. It’s hard enough to be gay now; it was much harder when you could be tainted just by being the son of a gay man. The real “unrequited love” tension isn’t between Marge and Dickey, it’s between Dickey and Tom.
Highsmith does a good job with the subtle emotional landscape underlying Tom and Dickey and even Marge. She also does a good job describing life in Italy for rich Americans in the mid twentieth century. (And honestly, it sounds pretty fine.) I loved the descriptions of the houses, the people, the palazzos, the late-night espressos and servants who make lunch for you. Like Ripley, I found myself caught between contempt for their arrogance and undeserved wealth, while simultaneously being envious of the easy lives they seemed to lead.
Even though there are brutal scenes in this book, I felt the overall mood was not one of psycho-thriller-horror but more of a heist/con/spy tension. I recommend this book for people who like unheroic protagonists.