Mark Harris
July 11, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Current Status
In Season
Andrew Wilson
Biography, Nonfiction

We gave it an A

She was a lesbian who was alternately obsessive about and dismissive of most women; an unrepentant alcoholic who nonetheless produced nearly two dozen taut, disciplined novels(most notably Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley);a profound misanthrope with a wide circle of friends; a tough Texan who could find a home only in Europe; and an artist who brought an acute understanding of the human mind to her fiction but was, in life, choked and tormented — perhaps even driven mad — by her own fury. Patricia Highsmith was, in short, a biographer’s dream, and British journalist Wilson does her full justice in a stunningly researched and insightful account of her 74 years. Wilson doesn’t stint on the Grand Guignol details of her life — the secret language in which she spoke to her cats, or the fact that in middle age, her booze-seamed countenance caused waiters to mistake her for a man. But he never lets the grotesquerie undermine his argument that she is one of the 20th century’s most important neglected writers. Without hyperbole or forced Freudianism, he finds enthralling connections between her troubled psyche and her frostily composed prose, helped by her copious diaries, notebooks, and letters. Sympathetic but unblinking, Shadow is an exciting milestone in the posthumous resurgence of an author who was a Ripleyesque enigma to her readers and herself.

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