In a small town in New England during the 1950s, Melinda and Victor Van Allen’s marriage has become increasingly strained due to Melinda’s infidelities that she aggressively flaunts in front of all their friends and neighbours. Although Victor does appear to be indifferent to it on the surface, he is not as stoic as he pretends to be and starts a rumour that he has killed one of her former lovers.
It’s quite fascinating how Highsmith presents the characters in this book. Vic is the “good guy”; a devoted father who endures his spouse’s shortcomings, a businessman who employs a drunkard out of the goodness of his heart, and a respected member of the community with a lot of friends. Melinda, on the other hand, is very obviously positioned as the “bad guy”. She shoves her string of lovers right in her husband’s face and humiliates him further by parading them in front of their acquaintances, she is a terrible mother who does not care about her daughter at all, she drinks and parties too much, and she even leaves most of the housework to her husband, even though she herself does not have a job. This setup is held up through almost the whole book, and even when it becomes clear that Vic is indeed a sociopath who will resort to murder, it is hard to scrape up any sympathy for Melinda and her paramours, who by the way are all unappealing people, too.
This is like an interesting psychological experiment on the reader because my allegiance only shifted at the very end, even though it had been obvious almost from the start that Vic is a stone-cold killer, and soon after that not only Melinda, but truly both of them were set on each other’s destruction. It all feels, however, also incredibly contrived. Vic is, apart from his sudden murderous inclinations, almost unbelievably likable and Melinda’s awfulness is too exaggerated to ring true, and they are both lacking in complexity. Because of this, it seems to me that the story doesn’t quite work as a detailed character study, but aside from that is an entertaining and sometimes even gripping read.
CBR13 Bingo: People