I became interested in reading this biography after hearing about interviews with Schenkar, who called Patricia Highsmith a sociopath. Patricia Highsmith is, of course, the author of many mid-20th century thrillers, the most famous being Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. After reading the biography, I don’t really think Highsmith was a sociopath. I think she was fascinated with certain dark themes, but she strikes me as more of a social inept, perhaps partially on the autistic spectrum.
Highsmith was certainly a complex person of many contradictions. She was a lesbian misogynist, as contradictory as that sounds, who was a great womanizer in her younger years and was seldom faithful to any of her lovers. She was an outspoken anti-Semite who had Jewish lovers and a lot of Jewish friends. Known in later years as a recluse, she visited her neighbors every evening and corresponded with many people, as well as making an appearance whenever invited.
She certainly was a damaged person. She had a love-hate relationship with her mother for her entire life, blaming her for abandoning her briefly when she was young and for not divorcing her stepfather. She was a woman who always thought she should actually have been a man. A heavy drinker and smoker, she barely ate any food for years and was probably anorexic.
Her life was an interesting one. She did not seem to be a likable person and frequently behaved very badly. Yet, she had many sincerely devoted friends.
I was interested in this book but had some issues with its structure. Schenkar explains at the beginning that a chronological approach wouldn’t do Highsmith justice, so she approaches Highsmith’s life sort of organically. The problem I found with this approach was that after awhile I could not figure out what organizing principle is holding some of the chapters together. Sometimes they just seem to follow a stream of consciousness approach. It makes the information conveyed very repetitive and chronologically impossible to follow. Schenkar helpfully provides a chronology at the back of the book, along with about 100 pages of supplementary material, but by then I was exhausted and had no interest in exploring any of it.
Finally—this is a small quibble—I got irritated by Schenkar’s chapter naming. The table of contents shows only nine chapters in this very long book, but there are really forty-nine. That is because she actually names them Les Girls Part 1, Les Girls Part 2, and so on. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I could just imagine Schenkar’s editor telling her she couldn’t have a 150-page chapter, which is the length of Les Girls, Parts 1–14. Such an approach does not strike me as being very imaginative.