Patricia Highsmith | Critical Review by Geoffrey Elborn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 556 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Geoffrey Elborn

SOURCE: "Mellow at the Last," in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 12, March 19, 1995, p. 29.

In the following positive review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Elborn states that the work "has a serenity rarely found in Highsmith's world."

No other crime writer came near to possessing Patricia Highsmith's particular gift. Highsmith, who died last month, had an ability to stretch the nerves by teasing out the tension of some trivial domestic incident, or to describe suffocation by a cluster of snails, was entirely her own. Small g: A Summer Idyll is unlike any of her previous books, but from the first page, it is recognisably authentic Highsmith. Perhaps approaching her lesbian novel Carol in tenderness and theme, it has a serenity rarely found in Highsmith's world.

This does not mean that the novel is in any way soft. No story that opens with a vicious fatal stabbing by two drug-crazed thugs can be considered comfortable. But the victim, Petey Ritter, becomes a symbol which helps to unite a young Zurich community, both gay and straight. They have a cosy meeting-place in "small g", the codename given by a guidebook to Jakob's Beirstube Restaurant to indicate that at weekends, a partly gay clientele is welcome. The place is a centre for local gossip; Highsmith seems well-informed about the social and sexual habits of gay men, their anxieties about ageing, wearing the "wrong" clothes and fear of ending unattached on the scrapheap.

These are the concerns of Rickie Markwalder, a graphic artist of 46, whose younger boyfriend was the murdered Petey, and who is already unrequitedly in love with a young straight man called Georg. Rickie, who is a daily habitue of the restaurant, seems to know and like everybody, with the exception of two misfit characters. The more extraordinary is Renate, a middle-aged seamstress who employs a few women in a dress-making business. Her hatred of gay men edges on the paranoid. She is a monster, sexually frustrated and lonely.

Renate's behaviour becomes psychopathic when she forms an alliance with Willi, the other misfit. This impressionable, malevolent and retarded lumbering hulk is easily led by Renate into committing an act of violence in the dark of night against a gay man. "Give him a good big scare, Willi. You know how," she says.

Highsmith's dexterity in controlling atmosphere depends on what we know but the characters do not. Scattered hints that Willi is a queer-basher are introduced but deliberately not proved, a classic Highsmith confusion without which her aficionados would feel cheated. The "big scare" results in Georg suffering a nasty, near-fatal "accident".

Nemesis is achieved in a particularly satisfying way, and yet it is not quite the point. If the novel is partly an eloquent appeal for tolerance of a gay society, it also, unusually for Highsmith, shows happy relationships. This is all the more remarkable because those involved at the start love or are loved by either the wrong person or someone of the wrong sex. Fulfilment seems impossible, but the characters in this "summer idyll" surprise themselves.

Highsmith generally planted no "message" in her books, considering that anyone of any sense would realise that there is no natural justice in this world. With Small g: A Summer Idyll, she seems to have felt that a statement about loving relationships of all kinds was more important.

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This section contains 556 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Geoffrey Elborn
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