Stephanie A. Higa's Reviews > Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
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's review
Jan 11, 08

Recommended for: psychological thriller fans
Read in January, 2008

I watched Hitchcock's film adaptation several months before and enjoyed it. In retrospect, the only things the movie and the book really have in common are the names of the characters and the idea of the double murder. Even though the movie is derived from the book, the stories are immensely different and I wouldn't even call them companion works. They are both works of art, but where the movie is happy, clean, and action-packed, the novel is anything but.

That said, I love Patricia Highsmith's writing. The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my favorite books, and it's easy to consider the three central characters of that novel as more fully developed versions of those in Strangers on a Train, which preceded it by five years. Highsmith writes much better about psychopaths than she does about innocent people. I'm certain of that, because the protagonist of this book, Guy Haines, is quite flat for the first half of the book, whereas Charles Bruno, the psycho who stalks Haines, coercing him to follow up with his half of the double murder, comes right off the page. I hate Bruno-- how could anyone not hate him?-- but his influence over Guy is frighteningly believable. The Guy-Bruno relationship is as incredible as it is awful and disturbing. The back cover of the edition I have promises an "insidious merging of personalities." The merging is deftly done and one major aspect of the plot that is not present in the movie.

Guy's portrayal took me out of the story more than a few times. In the movie, he's a tennis player; in the book, he's an architect. I don't think he's really a tennis kind of guy, but he's certainly not an architect, either. This probably won't bother most people. It's just that Highsmith gives us few specifics about Guy, and the little she gives us seems artificial. It's interesting that his career blossoms even as his soul deteriorates, but this is told rather than shown to the reader. He's supposedly brilliant, which means he must have some passion for his work. Yet his thoughts feel inhumanly one-sided. We're told he has commissions, and toward the end we learn he designs modernistic buildings, but not once throughout the entire book do his thoughts ever tend toward the artistic. Highsmith presents Guy's work to us in bland, stereotypical words; she doesn't even give us bland, stereotypical images. Also, he is apparently Southern, but there is nothing to distinguish him from the New York-born Bruno. The only character who really adheres to his region, Owen Markman, is more of a caricature than a human being.

Guy Haines could have been anything and it would have made little difference to the story. Perhaps that is the point: he could have been anyone. The one upside to Guy's one-track mind is the claustrophobic, psychological complexity that the movie lacked and which I think is the primary reason anyone should give this book a chance.

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