25th Aug 2011
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
I feel a bit sorry for Patricia Highsmith. These days, she’s often thought of as a lesbo who churned out potboilers rather than as an author that subtly explored the more slippery sides of human nature.
As Andrew Wilson’s massive biography Beautiful Shadow shows, this is partly due to Highsmith’s own character; a cantankerous, stingy old cunt who tormented both her numerous lovers and herself, all while carrying a pocketful of snails.
Or at least that’s one side of her, because, essentially, Wilson is trying to pin someone down who doesn’t believe in pins. Even in death, Highsmith’s contrary to say the least.
The themes of splintered personality and subversive sexuality that she comes back to, time and time again, in both her sinister short stories and the more famous novels (Strangers On A Train, the Ripley series), run through every area of her life.
Wilson’s book is meticulously researched and rammed full of insider accounts, a trail of unmade beds and gossipy stories like the time Highsmith drove sixty miles to buy a cheaper brand of spaghetti, but there’s something missing. It’s like she’s just too elusive for print.
I may have picked up a top writing tip (Highsmith challenged herself to come up with a plot every day in the shower – thanks, Patty!) but, in the end, all I really learnt is that Highsmith is just like one of her gilded anti-heroes, equally attractive and repellent.
Guest review by Sarah Drinkwater