This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite writers. She has an uncanny ability to get into the mind of a delusional character, and she does this particularly well in her 1960 novel, This Sweet Sickness. This immersive story of obsession and desire centres on David Kelsey, a talented yet restless young chemist who lives in New York. The problem for David is that he’s embroiled in the ‘Situation’, a concept that Highsmith introduces in the enticing opening paragraphs…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night. (p. 1)

During the week, David lives in a room in Mrs McCartney’s crummy boarding house where he fends off unwanted enquires and attention from various other inhabitants – most notably Effie Brennan, a friendly young woman who appears to be smitten with him. His weekends, however, are spent elsewhere, at a house in the town of Ballard, which he has purchased under a different name – that of William Neumeister, an alias or alter ego David has invented for himself.

At his Ballard home, David fantasises about his future life with former girlfriend Annabelle Delany, the only woman he has ever truly loved. In his imagination, the couple drink martinis together, listen to classical music and plan their forthcoming holidays around the world, all in the surroundings of the house that David has furnished for his ‘partner’. Unfortunately for David, Annabelle is now married to Gerald Delaney, and the couple have a young child together. To David, however, these are trivial obstacles – so trivial in fact that he persists in believing that Annabelle will soon come to her senses and leave Gerald for him. Surely Annabelle will be powerless to resist such charm and devotion, qualities that David continues to express in his letters and phone calls to her? At least, that’s how David sees things. In reality, though, the reader will appreciate how foolish this seems…

His house had the tremendous virtue of never being lonely. He felt Annabelle’s presence in every room. He behaved as if he were with her, even when he meditatively ate his meals. It was not like the boardinghouse, where with all that humanity around him he felt as lonely as an atom in space. In the pretty house Annabelle was with him, holding his hand as they listened to Bach and Brahms and Bartók, making fun of him if he were absentminded. He walked and breathed in a kind of glory within the house. Sunlight was like heaven, and rainy weekends had their peculiar charm. (pp. 19–20)

At first, David’s work colleagues and fellow residents at the boarding house know nothing about the Ballard house and the existence of William Neumeister. Instead, they believe that David spends every weekend visiting his mother at a nursing home, far enough away to justify his absence for a couple of days. This is the yarn that David has spun them, despite his mother having been dead for a number of years. However, as the novel unfolds, two individuals in particular – David’s work colleague Wes Carmichael and fellow boarder Effie Brennan – become increasingly curious about their friend’s secretive behaviour and decide to check things out…

This is the type of novel where it’s best not to know too much about the main plot developments in advance, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief. What I will say is that David’s dual life becomes increasingly messy as the novel progresses, with William Neumeister’s existence bleeding into David Kelsey’s in dangerous and unsettling ways…

He walked back through the slush to Mrs McCartney‘s, wondering how he would get through the evening, how he had gotten through the four or five hundred other evenings he had spent in his room. It was as if his wretched room itself had suffered an invasion. The Neumeister part of his life had entered the Kelsey Monday-to-Friday part, and like certain chemicals on mixing had set off an explosion. David was not used even to thinking about his weekend life during his working days and evenings. Now his weekend existence had, in fact, been destroyed. Slush-slush-slush went his shoes on the filthy sidewalks. (pp. 111–112)

What Highsmith does so well in this novel is to draw the reader into her protagonist’s mind. Even though the book is written in the third person, Highsmith’s depiction of David as an unhinged, delusional individual is utterly convincing, drawing the reader into the fantasy he has created for himself. By contrast, Annabelle is relatively lightly sketched, almost a cipher in some respects, to the point where I initially wondered if she might be a figment of David’s imagination. She isn’t, by the way – in fact she could be accused of encouraging David in his fantasies by not being firm enough with him from the start. Once again, there are some interesting psychological dynamics at play here that contribute to David’s delusions. Moreover, to complicate things further, there’s Effie Brennan, the persistent young woman who ends up following David while attempting to win his affections.

So, in summary, This Sweet Sickness is another very compelling novel from Patricia Highsmith, a psychological exploration of obsession, delusion and desire. Admittedly, the reader might have to suspend disbelief to accept a couple of key plots developments or devices; nevertheless, I found it a very addictive read, partly because the author builds a sense of dread so steadily and effectively.

This Sweet Sickness is published by Virago Press; personal copy. You can buy a copy of the book here via Bookshop.Org.

34 thoughts on “This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith

  1. A Life in Books

    I’ve read one Highsmith and one Shirley Jackson, linked in my mind partly because they seem to appeal to a similar readership at least in the blogosphere! I really must read more of both.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you haven’t read them, I would recommend you try either Carol or Deep Water. You might well enjoy them as they’re quite psychological in nature. Another reader was just saying on Twitter how Highsmith sometimes gets pigeonholed as a crime writer, which undersells her talents somewhat. She’s much more interested in the psychology of her characters (and how obsession and desire can skew their behaviours/actions) than the mechanics of the crime. That’s kind of why I don’t mind when her plots seem a bit too melodramatic or overly reliant on coincidences. She more than makes up for it in other areas!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! She’s not for everyone for sure…Thank you for taking the time to read my piece on a writer that doesn’t appeal to you. I’ll take that as a compliment. :-)

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I am surprised, Jacqui, that she is a favourite of yours, because you seem like such a nice person! I thought it was just sinister weirdos like me who enjoy her work (or Shirley Jackson, for that matter, as Susan rightly points out). Just joking – and I agree with you that, like with Dostoevsky, it is and it isn’t about the crime, it’s about the psychology and the darkest recesses of the human soul.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Aren’t we all fascinated by these sinister characters, even just a little bit? Now you’ve got me thinking about reading some Dostoevsky, very much a gap in all my years of reading…

      Reply
  3. Jane

    I haven’t read any Patricia Highsmith but this does sound good, an author for my next classics list I think – and I agree about Crime and Punishment!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s definitely worth trying, although I wouldn’t start with this one. Either Ripley or Strangers on a Train would be a great choice for your classics list!

      Reply
  4. mallikabooks15

    Despite having planned to read her for her centenary, I didn’t end up getting to Highsmith this year.
    From your description, this character somewhat reminded me of the chap in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea the Sea–similarly delusional about his first love, or at least in the belief that she cares for him and not her husband. If Highsmith really takes one into his mind though, I wonder if one would end up feeling rather unsettled.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That could be a potential outcome, for sure…That said, the rather outlandish plot developments in this one make it fairly easy for the reader to view the narrative as fictitious. At least, that’s how I’ve tried to rationalise it in my mind.

      Funny you should mention Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea because it popped up in the kindle daily deal today. I try to avoid buying too many ebooks as they tend to just sit there unopened, but your comment may well push me over the edge on this occasion. Thanks for such an interesting comparison!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I’ve really enjoyed the Patricia Highsmith novels that I read. This sounds so good, a claustrophobic exploration of obsession. She is so good at delving deep into her characters psychology.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. I’m actually quite tempted by that new book of her diaries and notebooks, but the physical copy is massive. Probably one to kindle, I think!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Love that you’re such a fan of Highsmith! I have to admit that based on what I’ve read so far Shirley Jackson is more to my taste, but how interesting that she has someone else obsessing over an obsessive!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She has that effect on me, for sure! I don’t know if you’ve read Carol / The Price of Salt, but if not, that might be more to your tastes than some of her other books? Not that you need any more reading recommendations, I’m sure. :)

      Reply
  7. Claire 'Word by Word'

    You do make it sound like quite an immersive read, She’s not on my shelf but I do like reading the reviews, it makes me think of Jean Rhys, boarding houses do seem to attract malcontents of various persuasions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right about boarding houses being magnets for troubled souls, from the lonely to the idiosyncratic to the depraved. Despite it being largely a British institution, the seedy boarding house slots right into Highsmith’s world regardless of the novel’s American setting!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui, and your love of Highsmith’s work really shines through. I have read little of her writing, and that a very, very long time ago, so I’m overdue a revisit. This sounds particularly memorable – to get inside a character’s head and get his madness across in the third person is really an achievement. I’ll keep this one on the radar!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I really enjoyed it, although it’s probably not the strongest of her books (narratively speaking) if you were ever minded to give her another go. The female-centric novel, Carol/The Price of Salt, might be an excellent way for you to reengage with Highsmith, as it’s very character-driven (and less unhinged) than some of her other books, while still riffing on the theme of desire and its fateful consequences. I’d love to hear what you think of it…

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    I’ve not read a lot of Highsmith, but I’ve never really taken to her for, I think, the reasons you like her – her delusional characters – I find them so unpleasant, and there’s something cruel in her writing. Having said that, this could easily change!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s such an interesting perception, Grant, especially about the element of cruelty, as I generally find Highsmith quite sympathetic as a writer. By that I mean she has a way of encouraging the reader to feel sympathy for her deluded, unhinged protagonists – to the point that before you (as a reader) know it, you’re virtually cheering her psychopaths on. Funnily enough, I sometimes find Muriel Spark a little too cruel for my tastes – or to put it another way, I have to be in the *right* mood for her sharpness and rather skewed way of viewing the world. The Driver’s Seat (which I loved!) is a really good example of this – the reader’s response feels balanced on a knife’s edge with the potential to go one way or the other depending on mood, if that makes any kind of sense!

      Reply
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