The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

With the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January on my watchlist, I moved the novel to the top of the TBR pile. I haven’t read a great deal of Highsmith, and I’ve yet to get to the Ripley novels, but Strangers on a Train was a fantastic read as well as being my favourite Hitchcock film. So I began The Two Faces of January with some high expectations which weren’t quite met.

Rydal Keener is a law school graduate, the son of a Harvard Law professor who’s spending a small inheritance idling in Europe “as long as it lasted.” Now 25, he’s been away for 2 years, and not even the death of his controlling, perfectionist father has persuaded him to return home. Rydal is the black sheep of the family, and with a very unpleasant incident involving a 15-year-old cousin in his past, Rydal is in no hurry to return to America. It’s as though he’s waiting for something to happen. …

The two facesFate throws Rydal into a collision course with married couple: Chester and Colette MacFarland. Middle-aged Chester, a con man whose lucrative specialty is stocks, is in Greece hoping that the heat in America will cool down in his absence. He wants to show his young wife, Colette, on her first trip to Europe, a good time, and he’s stifled her complaints with a “new set of luggage and a mink jacket.

After a few days in Greece, Chester found that he breathed more easily. He enjoyed the strange meals at the tavernas, the little oily dishes of this and that, washed down with ouzo or a bottle of wine that usually neither of them liked, though Chester always finished it. Colette bought five pairs of shoes, and Chester had a suit made of English tweed in a fraction of the time and for less than half what it would have cost him in the States. Still, it was a habit, a nervous habit, for him to glance around the hotel lobby to see if there were anyone who looked like a police agent. He doubted if they would send a man over for him, but the F.B.I had representatives abroad, he supposed. All they would need was a photograph, the collected testimony of a few swindled people, and, by checking with passport authorities, they could discover his name.

Rydal becomes swept up in MacFarland’s affairs when a man is killed. Since Rydal speaks fluent Greek and has plenty of contacts, he helps Chester and Colette with new, forged passports and an escape….

Colette is attracted to Rydal, and the feeling is mutual, so to Chester and even outsiders (the police, Rydal’s friends), Rydal’s involvement is easily explained, and so a triangle emerges with Colette in the middle of a young man she’s attracted to and her much older father-figure of a husband.

Men whom she looked at usually felt transfixed and fascinated by her gaze; there was something speculative in it, and nearly every man, whatever his age, thought, ‘She looks as if she’s falling in love with me. Could it be?’

Highsmith makes it quite clear that this is not a standard love triangle. While Rydal appears to be drawn to Colette (and it’s true that there’s an attraction), she seems to be just another means of resolving Rydal’s past, but primarily she’s an object that ‘belongs’ to Chester with little intrinsic value of her own. We know, from Rydal’s thoughts, that Colette reminds him of his cousin Agnes and the unresolved relationship he had with her years ago, but also, and much more significantly, Chester is almost a mirror image of Rydal’s father. But whereas Rydal’s father was the epitome of self-righteous respectability, Chester is a smarmy con man, and Rydal is drawn to Chester in order to resolve and relive his relationship with his father on a different playing field.

We know almost immediately that Chester and Rydal play games with fate. Chester pressed his luck when he began selling “Walkie Kars,” and “something–temptation, bravado, a sense of humour? had compelled him to try peddling the damned things” even though he had no supply. Rydal is a game player, and allows his choices to be dictated by random events. Rydal’s life was shaped by his domineering father, and Chester’s life took a specific turn after his father’s bankruptcy:

the girl he had been engaged to, had broken the engagement–instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy–so that the shock of his father’s situation and the loss of Annette had seemed a single, world-shattering catastrophe. Chester had left school and tried to apply what he had learned of business administration to the saving of an artificial-leather factory up in New Hampshire. He hadn’t saved it. Flat broke, he had sworn to himself he would get rich, and fast. So he started to operate, more and more shadily, he could see it now, though when he had started out, he hadn’t intended to get rich by being crooked. It had been a gradual thing. A gradual bad thing, Chester knew. But now he was stuck with it, really deep in it, hooked on it like an addict on dope.

In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith drops remarks about the two main male characters, Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” yet there are also times when they seem to be two halves of the same person. Shades of that sort of strange chemistry exist here in The Two Faces of January, but it’s much less successful. The father-son dynamic is seen through Rydal’s relationship with his father and also in his relationship with Chester, but at the same time there’s the feeling that just as Chester took the road to crime after bitter adversity, Rydal is also capable of making the same sort of poor choices. And in fact that’s just what Rydal does when he becomes involved with the MacFarlands. Could Rydal become like Chester in another 15 years or so?

No shock here since this is Highsmith, but this is a psychologically complex tale. A great deal of the plot is a story of flight as Rydal organizes and arranges escape for the MacFarlands. Unfortunately, for this reader, in spite of the fact that these characters are on the run with the police in hot pursuit, there’s remarkably little tension until the novel’s excellent conclusion. The idea of the plot is good: three characters thrown together by fate who connect for reasons that are both obvious and not so obvious, but the execution lacks tension in spite of the high stakes situation.

The title evokes the image of the two-faced god who looks to the future and the past. When we first meet Rydal, he’s at a crossroads in his life–a phase of non-action that he’s spun out as far as he can, and, while he’s in no hurry to reconnect with his past, he is about to finally return to America. Chester has fled from his past to Europe. Both Chester and Rydal have murky pasts and their futures, whatever futures they may have, are connected. While Chester reminds Rydal of his father, both Chester and Rydal’s father are, in a sense, men with two faces: Chester appears to be an affluent man but in reality, he’s a cheap con man running out of steam, and Rydal’s father, the eminently respectable law professor leaves a monstrous impression on the reader.

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7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Highsmith Patricia

7 responses to “The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

  1. I’d noticed the film, but was only passingly familiar with the book. I have a bunch of unread Highsmith, and reading your review I suspect this book won’t be added to them anytime soon. It does make me want to watch the movie more though, Highsmith wrote good movie material (which sounds like a dig, but it isn’t at all).

    North by Northwest in my case. You can’t beat Cary Grant. Strangers on a Train is great though.

    • I noticed today that the book has been re-released as a movie tie-in. No big surprises there but the film is certain to bring a new audience to this title. No I wouldn’t rush to read this either Max. I’m sure there are better Highsmith novels to be read.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I liked the film very much. It looks beautiful and seems to capture the period detail very well, worth seeing for that alone. The lead performances are good too. I’ll be interested to hear what you think once you’ve watched it.

    On the Hitchcock films: Strangers on a Train and Rear Window for me.

  3. I have not read Highsmith but Strangers on train may be my favorite Hitchcock movie too. The issue of doubles and opposites was indeed fascinating in that film.

    Thus, this sounds good too.

  4. I loved Strangers on a Train.
    I was thinking about the meaning of the title and then saw that you wrote about it. It’s a clever title.

  5. I think she’s written so many books that there’s bound to be the one or the other that doesn’t entirely work. Like Max I’ve got a few of her novels here so will not add this to my piles. I’d like to watch the movie though.

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