Across the Page: February 2010


This month’s Across the Page features three noteworthy books: the new biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar; Amy Bloom’s new collection of short stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out; and a striking collection by queer poet Amy King, Slaves to Do These Things.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin’s Press)

To put it simply, Joan Schenkar’s new biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith, is so engaging that I was sad when I got to the end of the 600-plus-page book.

Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt, “the first American novel about a passionately ‘successful’ affair between two women,’ among others, lived a life worth exploring. She was born in the early 1920’s in Fort Worth, Texas, where her strong-willed and obstinate grandmother essentially raised her until her mother moved them to New York City to live with a new stepfather.

The move set off a life-long resentment between the mother and daughter pair that Highsmith would hold onto, as she did with most of her grudges, with a vengeance — she would later blame her mother and stepfather for everything from her failed relationship with her father to her lesbianism.

After the bright and well read Highsmith graduated from college, she was hired to write comic books — a part of her life and past she worked hard to keep hidden, but that Schenkar deftly connects to Highsmith’s later career as a novelist in terms of how it shaped her mastery of plot and the hero-criminal dynamic.

As a young woman, Highsmith was known for her striking beauty, intelligence and eccentricities. Schenkar captures her early adult years in New York City as she connected to other writers, developed her craft, fell passionately in and out of love and often interjected herself into the lives of other lesbian couples.

Even after Highsmith began to publish her work, she continued to struggle both professionally and personally.  Eventually her beauty succumbed to years of alcoholism and lack of nutrition. As Schenkar reveals, Highsmith’s life was as filled with passion, complexity and (perceived) danger as the fictional worlds she devoted herself to creating.

Schenkar explores and focuses on the repetition and contradictions in Highsmith’s life — whether with her family, lovers or her work.  She was an anti-Semite whose many lovers, friends and editors were Jewish.  She was a lesbian and also misogynistic. “She makes is easy for us to be ravished by her romances, sullied by her prejudices, shocked by her crimes of the heart, appalled by the corrosive expression of her hatred,” explains Schenkar.

Schenkar opens the book with a note on the biography and an introduction to Highsmith as a subject: “She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman.”

But Schenkar’s analysis and rendering of Highsmith’s life and work is beyond generous.  It is an honest and utterly gripping look at a brilliant and tortured mind. Highly recommended.  

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