Stunningly good work by Patricia Highsmith—I finally found a book she’s written that hasn’t been turned into a movie so I could fully enjoy her words without the polluting influence of Hollywood’s interpretation floating before my eyes. Dreamy, creepy, yet jarringly real story of a housewife moved from NYC to the Pennsylvania countryside to raise her (disappointing) son and eventually separate and divorced by her husband in favor of a younger woman. Edith’s diary enters the scene in the first sentence, as appropriate for a main actor, as she is packing up their West Village apartment for the move to Brunswick Corner, PA. She has sporadically jotted things into the heavy leather-bound volume since receiving it as a gift from a man who’d been wooing her while at Bryn Mawr, most recently moods and thoughts like “Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?” In this early chapter we get the foundation for her son, Cliffie,’s character, not doing well in school, day-dreaming in front of the TV, and nearly killing the cat by suffocating it.
Also early on the family is saddled with caring for an ailing elderly uncle of her husband’s, uncle George, who ends up spending 12 or 13 years at their home before being helped into a permanent sleep by Cliffie and medicine. Edith cares for George in her house for YEARS after Brett abandons her, not helping her get him into a nursing home, and later sniffing around to see if there was foul play in the death. Years and years of bedpans and rubber sheets and preparing trays of food and tea to take up to him. Compare and contrast to Edith’s aunt Melanie, the same age or older than George, spry and fit and cheerful and gallivanting about, excitedly visiting Edith whenever she gets a chance. Melanie dies of a stroke a few weeks before Cliffie sends George packing.
Edith writes articles and editorials for the local paper she helped create, but begins to go off the rails and make the community uncomfortable, eventually losing her part-time job in a gift shop. As her life spirals out of control, she finds refuge in her diary, spinning up a completely fabricated life of success for her son whom she marries off with children and an important job in the Middle East. The line begins to blur between reality and her dream life, she prepares a champagne lunch one spring day and pretends Cliffie and his wife are there, when in reality it’s just fat, lazy, boozy Cliffie who still lives at home with her and sometimes works at a local bar or delivering groceries. At age 24 he falls in love (unrequited) for the first time, and spends years trying to forget her.
Eventually the psychiatrists are sent in, storming the fortress, always asking to see her workroom where she’s begun sculpting. She created busts of her son and aunt… along with busts of the two children she dreamed up for her son. She’s carrying the heavy bust of her son downstairs to show one of the doctors when she trips, falls, and dies. Cliffie lives on, rescues her diary and swears never to read it.
Books sometimes establish credibility by flashing titles of other books as credentials, and Highsmith invokes Orwell’s 1984 and Homage to Catalonia early on to gain our trust.