Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith reveals the fascinating complexities of fiction writer and tortured soul Patricia Highsmith. Author of the well-known The Talented Mr. Ripley, several Ripley sequels, The Price of Salt, and many other novels, Highsmith’s penchant for writing about murder, theft, and consistent betrayal stemmed from a life of perpetual misery and anger.
Born in Texas in 1921 but raised in Manhattan, Highsmith endured a tumultuous relationship with her overbearing mother, a relationship that Schenkar examines and reexamines thoroughly throughout the book, portraying it as codependent and toxic. Depicted as resentfully joined at the hip, mother and daughter constantly seek approval from one another while simultaneously rejecting one another. Highsmith’s mother greatly disapproved of her daughter’s homosexuality, a topic that drove the pair to write exceedingly disdainful letters to one another over the course of many years. Highsmith internalized her mother’s denigratory voice, which, according to Schenkar, led to a lifetime of alcoholism, destructive relationships, and general self-loathing. An outspoken anti-Semite and racist, Highsmith navigated New York City just out of Barnard College, writing for comic books, a job that she often felt ashamed to mention to others.
For much of her career, Highsmith was content to infuse her work with mere homosexual undertones, without explicitly depicting homosexual affairs. Then, in 1952, she wrote The Price of Salt, which directly addresses a romantic relationship between two female protagonists. Highsmith was greatly concerned that the publication of such a work would negatively impact her writing career, so she published it under a pseudonym, and even as late as 1990 she expressed regret for having gone forward with publication.
Schenkar’s writing, however, is not to be overpowered by her compelling subject; the biography maintains a perfect tension between Highsmith’s own captivating story and the author’s commanding narrative. Schenkar revisits the lesbian bar scene of 1940s New York, as present a character as Highsmith herself, where Highsmith’s contemporaries exchange hushed whispers about her most controversial work, The Price of Salt, over rum-and-cokes. Highsmith sustained unconventional attitudes towards romance, often introducing her many lovers to one another while simultaneously carrying on multiple affairs, a few with men. A frantic maker of lists, a smoker, a heavy drinker, and a long-suffering anorexic, Highsmith traveled Europe and Mexico before settling in Switzerland in the later part of her life.
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Tags: 1940s, 1950s, barnard, Claire Morgan, joan schenkar, lesbian, Manhattan, new york city, Patricia Highsmith, suspense novel, The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley
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