Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sheesh. Over a month since my last post. I got completely bogged down by a thick, studious book about the Holy Grail in North America. It's interesting, but a bit of a tough slog. I finally 'gave up' (not really 'cause I'm still reading it) and decided to pick something better (and quicker) to read on the subway and whatnot. So number 14 of this year is Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith.

I've never read any of her stuff before, but like most, I have seen the movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. This book was one of those tossed on my nightstand by my husband when I complained I had nothing to read. I'd forgotten about it for awhile, but found it, realized it wouldn't take me long to read, and gave it a shot.

The crux of the novel is a cat and mouse game between Ray Garrett and his (former) father in law, Ed Coleman. Ray's wife (and Coleman's daughter) has recently committed suicide, and both men are blaming Ray for her death. Ray blames himself in that he didn't recognize signs of her depression and because he was out of the house on the day it happened; whereas Coleman blames Ray as he thinks he was the root cause of Peggy's suicide. Coleman firmly believes that had Peggy not married Ray, she'd still be alive.

Ray wants only to explain his side of things to Coleman. That Peggy was... immature in a lot of ways. She wanted to experience life, but kept thinking there was 'more' to it; more to life, more to painting, more to sex, just more. And whenever there wasn't more, when reality set in, Peggy became more and more disappointed and Ray just wasn't sure what to do with her diappointment as he felt they had a good life. And they did. They had money, happiness (well, at first), and goals. But none of this was enough for Peggy.

The book starts off in Rome, with Ray wanting to 'explain' things to Coleman. But Coleman's not really interested in listening to explanations, and instead, takes a shot at Ray and runs off, believing his son-in-law dead.

But Ray survives, and continues to come back for more. The story moves to Venice, and Ray follows Ed there. But Ed, not exactly thrilled to see Ray, consents to meet with him again, but after the dinner party (complete with witnesses as to Ray and Ed talking), Ed pushes Ray out of a boat into frigid water, and once again leaves him for dead.

But once again, Ray survives. He also finally realizes confronting Ed again may not be the wisest idea. He plays 'dead' for awhile, trying to figure out his next move, and starts shadowing Coleman. In the meantime though, Coleman is quite pleased with himself. His complete and utter contempt for his former son-in-law is quite aparent, and he had no qualms of conscience about killing him. He obviously sees Ray's life as (inadequate) payment for Peggy's, and is fine with this. However, Coleman's compainions (including his lady friend) start to wonder if Ed did have something to do with Ray's disappearance. Eventually, Coleman does see Ray tailing him, and the whole thing begins again.

I liked Highsmith's narrative structure, where she basically alternates chapters told from the POV of either Coleman or Ray. This structure really lends itself to the cat-mouse feeling of the book as we get inside the heads of these two men, and no one else really. Its not that the secondary characters aren't fleshed out, its just that really, they're not as important. This is all about what's going through the minds of Coleman and Ray, and I appreciate Highsmith for not straying from that.

The characters of Ray and Coleman are well done and vastly differnt. Ray is a young man, confused about what's happend regarding his wife's suicide and feeling desperately guilty about it. He's not exactly a strong-willed person, he comes from a wealthy family and he smacks a bit of that priviledged helplessnes, but he does seem earnest (although at times overly so). In general, he comes across as very, very lost.

Coleman, on the other hand, is happy to let his grief come out as anger. He wants to lash out at the only person he can see is to blame for Peggy's death, and that's Ray. So when Ray tries to explain that Coleman is partly to blame (due to Peggy's sheltered upbringing), this pushes him even more into the idea that the only way he'll get peace is to kill Ray. Coleman is more of a self-made man than Ray is. He's not overly wealthy, but a painter of some talent, however, he does have a talent for hooking up with wealthy, widowed women (of his own age, obviously) who contribute to his upkeeping. However, as Coleman does have some money of his own, it doesn't feel like he's completely taking advantage of his latest lady-friend. You get the idea though that Coleman was a completely moral person, but his loss has driven him to contemplate (and attempt) a rather un-moral plan of action.

I also liked Highsmith's writing style; its rather economical and definitley a desendent of the hark-boiled approach of early crime writers like Dashiell Hammett. She doesn't go out of her way to describe things (despite the setting being Venice, a place where you'd figure lots of description would be appropriate), and she also manages to make Venice sound way less glamorous than you'd expect, and this ties into the story nicely.

I liked this book quite a bit, and would be willing to check out a few more of her offerings.