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The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

A-TalentedHighsmithPlaywright and biographer Joan Schenkar received critical praise for Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece (2000), a fascinating tour through the salons and bedrooms of Europe’s chic gay community between World War I and World War II. The Talented Miss Highsmith is only the second published biography of the award-winning author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955).

The Topic: Crime novelist Patricia Highsmith’s erotically charged, soulless predators and clever plots revolutionized the genre by subverting its time-honored conventions. However, the sporadic literary success she enjoyed would be overshadowed by her tempestuous private life. Newly graduated from Barnard College in 1942, the Fort Worth, Texas, native took a job writing storylines for comic superheroes whose disguises, secret identities, and narrow escapes would permeate her fiction. Her tortured love-hate relationship with her mother and venomous misogyny left the lesbian Highsmith unable to form long-term attachments. In later years, her arrogance and lack of social graces shocked and offended nearly everyone she met. Finally, bitter and alone, Highsmith died of leukemia in 1995, leaving behind her own alter egos in print—the impassive and ruthless antiheroes she created.
St. Martin’s Press. 704 pages. $40.00. ISBN: 9780312303754

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Schenkar’s methods and deep research into Highsmith’s deceptive practices have yielded one of the year’s best literary lives, which is also a bracing rebuke to the usual way we read biography." Carl Rollyson

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Talented Miss Highsmith is both dazzling and definitive—the latter nearly by default; it’s only the second life of Highsmith, following Andrew Wilson’s sturdy Beautiful Shadow (2003). Its scope and scholarship are unassailable, and its vigor indefatigable." Daniel Mallory

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Schenkar has a wonderfully bold approach: not worrying about a linear chronology (although this is meticulously supplied in the appendices), but choosing instead to follow the emotional watercourse of Highsmith’s life, allowing her subject to find her own level—to be tidal, sullen, to flow without check, so that events in one decade naturally make an imaginative tributary into turbulence before and after. Schenkar’s writing is witty, sharp and light-handed, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this biography." Jeanette Winterson

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"It is hard to imagine a more thoroughly fact-filled or energetic biography than The Talented Miss Highsmith or one more determined to examine the deepest recesses of its complicated subject. Ms. Schenkar’s presentation is cubist, off-putting at first, featuring separated essays that isolate various topics. The dislocation can be confusing, yet one soon comes to accept the method as a way of mining the many veins of a very strange life." Alexander Theroux

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Talented Miss Highsmith jettisons conventional structure and tries something trickier, often with mixed success. … Ms. Schenkar gives her own inventive, presumptuous spin to a few too many aspects of Highsmith’s life. … But she also writes with great authority and perverse affection, because, as the book makes clear, any feeling toward Highsmith is perverse by definition." Janet Maslin

Seattle Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The Talented Miss Highsmith is unquestionably a well-researched biography that is, in its misguided way, a labor of love. But why did Schenkar devote so much time and effort to compiling it? Apparently eager to catalog the most gossipy events of her subject’s life, she loses all perspective." John Hartl

Boston Globe 1 of 5 Stars
"Though she eschews a straightforward approach, grouping her chapters thematically (there are 14 chapters entitled ‘Les Girls’ detailing Highsmith’s innumerable love affairs and ill-fated friendships with women), Schenkar can’t escape the gravitational pull of the calendar and is forced to repeat dates, anecdotes, and facts to make each section comprehensible in the larger context. It is a disastrous strategy." Jay Atkinson

Critical Summary

Schenkar takes an experimental approach to her detailed biography of novelist Patricia Highsmith, the result of meticulous research and multiple interviews. Eschewing a conventional chronological structure, she organizes her narrative loosely around Highsmith’s obsessions and secrets, allowing her to move across years and continents in the space of a few pages. Though the New York Times Book Review lauded the biography as "a model of its kind," other critics found the layout confusing and repetitive. The critics also diverged over Schenkar’s unusually bold voice, frank opinions, and cursory treatment of Highsmith’s racism and anti-Semitism. Schenkar does indeed shed new light on the troubled writer, and despite a few problems, The Talented Miss Highsmith "will redeem itself if it convinces you to see what all the fuss is about" (Miami Herald).

Supplemental Reading

Strangers on a Train | Patricia Highsmith (1950): In Highsmith’s suspenseful debut novel, adapted by Hitchcock for the big screen in 1951, two men meet by chance on a train and after a few drinks, hatch an unlikely plan to rid themselves of some unwanted family connections.

The Talented Mr. Ripley | Patricia Highsmith: In this widely praised psychological thriller, Highsmith introduces readers to charming sociopath Tom Ripley, a man who will stop at nothing to lead the carefree life of luxury he craves.