I know I disappeared for a while. There are a lot of reasons! February and March were very light on new releases, so I didn't have much to write about. Plus I've reached a new stage in post-book-job life where I am really luxuriating in not having to keep my fingers on the pulse all the time. I am still reading, as much as usual if not more, but it's been nice to just take a break from feeling like I have to then discuss books in public. I am trying to make sure I do what feels good and not what feels obligatory. So a break seemed like a good idea.
But I am back because I have things I want to say!
This is a one-topic newsletter and that topic is the 1957 novel and 2022 film adaptation of Deep Water. As I am wont to do, a pending movie adaptation will send me to a book I have planned to read but never gotten around to. I have been meaning to read more Highsmith since I first read Ripley in the late 90's (Sorry but I find the Minghella movie fine but not more than fine, don't @ me) and then only read The Price of Salt recently after seeing Carol (a truly excellent adaptation, chef's kiss). So I guess everyone needs to keep adapting Highsmith for me to keep reading her.
I listened to the audiobook of Deep Water and at first I wasn't sure if it was for me but pretty soon I was in it and by the end I was in love. She manages to make it clear to you how bad of a person her protagonist, Vic Van Allen, is. And yet you still find yourself rooting for him and you have to keep reminding yourself that he is awful. It's a real tightrope walk and she pulls it off.
On the other hand we have a new movie version, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, directed by Adrian Lyne (of Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful, and 9 1/2 Weeks, 25 years worth of sexy and minorly misogynistic movies) and written by some white dude (of his two previous credits one is Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) and Sam Levinson, also known as the Euphoria guy. It is the 2020's, and I guess white guys are still in charge of Hollywood because at least one of them thought it would be a good idea to have three white dudes make this movie.
Men should have stayed very far away from this story, and I suspect most women reading the novel would know that. I certainly did. I kept thinking that making a movie of this was probably a bad idea regardless of who did it, but definitely if men did it. Highsmith is subtle amidst her big swings you have to be very good to do it just right, and for many filmmakers it's impossible to capture that knife's edge.
Here is the basic setup if you have not read the book. (If you saw the movie you know less of it than you'd expect.) Vic is married to Melinda. Melinda sleeps with other men. Vic knows this and so do most of their friends. She does not try to hide it, she is quite practical. She dances with these men at parties. She invites them over to have dinner, where Vic and their daughter are also in attendance, and then stays up with them waiting for Vic to go to bed so they can get a little alone time. The men she brings take a while to warm up to this arrangement, and it is only after they have realized that Vic is in the know and isn't going to do anything that things really pick up. Vic and Melinda have a sexless marriage, but otherwise have apparently decided to get along, sleeping in separate parts of the house.
This is all established in the opening scene of the novel, though Highsmith gives us some time to really luxuriate in her characters and setting before much else happens. We have a good understanding of how this dynamic works and that it has happened several times before by the time anything actually happens in the book.
But already it's clear that this is not something I would ever put in a straight man's hands. Because they will not be able to really get behind a male character who is so passive. There are men like this in the novel, who are surprised by Vic, and who figure that at some point he is going to explode with pent up rage. And eventually Vic does act, of course, there has to be a story. But it is not just Vic that is the problem. I thought to myself, What will men do with Melinda? She is not a likable character, but then again what woman would be happy in 1957 married to a guy who cares more about snails than people? A woman sees Melinda as trapped, as taking action in the only way she knows how. She is cruel, yes, but not always and not in the ways you would expect. A man sees her as, well, as a character from an Adrian Lyne movie. (Thankfully no bunnies in pots, at least.)
To the men who made this movie, she is insatiable. She is desirable. She must ooze sex constantly. Men are so utterly predictable, it's kind of sad. In fact, what's most surprising in this movie is how little sex there is in it.
Not only that, but the men writing this movie want sad Ben Affleck to be a hero, not an anti-hero. Sad Ben still sleeps with his wife and loves (?) her. Sad Ben is a good dad. Sad Ben gets a deeply different ending than he does in the book. Sad Ben is just, I don't know, doing what he has to do?
To men, this was a story about sex. But I read this book and saw it as something else entirely, a story about power. Melinda has none in her role as wife and mother, especially as she's not particularly good at either. Vic has all he wants, he's the one with money, he's the one who keeps the two of them in good social standing, he can spend his time doing whatever he feels like doing. Highsmith has given us such an interesting anti-hero, one who is not fulfilling his masculine duties in any traditional way, one who can only deal with that conflict for so long before things take a turn.
I enjoyed the book so much, truly! I would very much like you to not judge it from this terrible movie and instead seek it out on its own merits. The audiobook was just fine, and audio means you have the opportunity to yell, "Vic, no, this is a terrible idea!" aloud on many occasions. Spend some delicious time with this power play, the struggle of the back and forth, and then watching it all fall apart. (You will just have to feel bad for their daughter Trixie because no one is going to come out alright with parents like these.) Get mad at yourself for realizing you are on Vic's side once again and you didn't realize it had happened once again. Damn that Patricia Highsmith, she truly is so good at this.
I have about a million more thoughts on why this movie is so bad. (Laughable that it's set in the present day, when everyone would just be like "Why don't you just get divorced?" and "Oh cool so you have an open marriage." Also I suspect it's set in Louisiana just because that's where they felt like filming.) I could go on all day but I will spare you. Truly you do not need to waste even a moment of your time with it unless Sad Ben Affleck is your kink, I guess. In which case, I wish you the best.
Ok I feel a little bad just leaving it there so I will give you one new release that I have read that is out this week. (This is possibly the only one for April? I am not kidding when I tell you that there is not a lot I am in love with this spring...)
I like to indulge in a celebrity memoir audiobook every so often and this one was nice. First off we must give Molly credit for naming her co-writer, the author Sean Wilsey, instead of using a ghostwriter silently like every other celebrity. This does have some celebrity anecdotes with her time on SNL, but the focus is on her childhood. I usually do not care for childhood memoirs much but this one works because Molly Shannon really is just the way you think she would be. She's ebullient and optimistic and outgoing, and she brings all that to her story. It is, I should note, a very sad one. The book starts with the car accident that killed her mother, sister, and cousin when she was just 3 years old. There is a lot of very vivid pain to balance out her sillier anecdotes. But there's a reason I like to do these on audio, getting to listen to an engaging person tell you about themselves has its own pleasures, and I really enjoyed listening to her and what she brought to it.