This Sweet Sickness

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This Sweet Sickness
First edition
Author Patricia Highsmith
Country United States
Language English
Genre novel psychological thriller psychological horror
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 240 pp (hardback edition)
OCLC 310569021

This Sweet Sickness (1961) is a psychological thriller novel by Patricia Highsmith, about an insane young man who is obsessed with his ex-lover.


Scientist David Kelsey has his heart broken by old fiancée Annabelle, after he leaves town for several months and returns to find that she's found another man. However, unable to move on from his first love, he labours under the vain hope that she will one day leave her new husband, and so secretly buys a beautiful house in the country with the intention of setting up home for them. This blossoming obsession soon leads the young man down some very dark paths, and could spell disaster not just for him, but also for Annabelle and his two friends Wes Carmichael, a colleague with an unhappy home life, and Effie Brennan, an artist whose unrequited love for Kelsey may prove her undoing.

Plot summary[edit]

David Kelsey leads a double life. During the week he lives under his real name at Mrs. McCartney's boarding house and has a well-paid job as a scientist. During the weekends, while pretending to visit his invalid mother at a nursing home (his mother has in fact been dead for quite some time), he assumes the identity of William Neumeister and stays at an isolated house which he bought under that name. "Neumeister" sees himself as a success at whatever he does, whereas Kelsey considers himself a failure. In both his lives he is a recluse. He has bought and furnished his house for Annabelle, the love of his life, who in reality has never come to visit him. Every weekend he cooks dinner for two, with Annabelle present only in his imagination. One weekend two of his coworkers, Wes Carmichael and Effie Brennan secretly follow him. On this occasion they see him enter the house without realising that it is his own and without Kelsey noticing.

Kelsey suffers under what he calls "the Situation", said situation being his infatuation with Annabelle, and Annabelle's failure to reciprocate. Kelsey considers this a personal failing on his own part, blaming himself for moving away from Annabelle to take up the factory job (the irony being that he took the job in order to save money to marry Annabelle in the first place), and is so sensitive about the "Situation" that he refuses to discuss it with other people - or, if pressed, claim that he and Annabelle are due to wed in the near future, despite the fact that Annabelle never consents to marry Kelsey.

At the beginning of the novel, Annabelle has already married another man, Gerald Delaney, and early on in the story gives birth to Gerald's son. Kelsey is convinced that Annabelle has made a serious mistake, and sees Delaney as a brutish, monstrous figure, but he does not give up hope of winning Annabelle back. He keeps writing her letters in which he insists that she leave her husband and marry him, and goes so far as to visit their apartment, getting into an argument with Gerald. When Kelsey writes a letter directly asking Annabelle to leave Delaney for him, Delaney is enraged and goes to the boarding house to tell Kelsey to leave them alone. Delaney is given directions by Effie to Kelsey's secret house; when Delaney arrives there, Kelsey is appalled that Delaney has tracked him down, since he had thought nobody knew that he owned the house, and confronts Delaney; with both men acting aggressively, a fight soon breaks out, in the course of which Delaney is knocked down and falls badly on the steps of Kelsey's house, breaking his neck.

Kelsey calmly reports the incident at the nearest police station. The police have no reason to doubt what he tells them: that his name is Neumeister, a freelance journalist who frequently travels, that he did not know Delaney or any of his family, and that he only acted in self-defense on being attacked by a stranger. Kelsey chooses to give the Neumeister identity to the police because, whilst he could make the same self-defense argument if he had given his real name, Annabelle would then know that he had fought and killed Delaney, and Kelsey is convinced that if she discovers this he would have no hope of ever winning her back. Thus, his "Situation" becomes much more complex, since he must not only try to win back Annabelle whilst keeping the failure of his love life a secret from the world, but he must also ensure that no one ever finds out that Kelsey and Neumeister are the same person.

Consequently, Kelsey builds an astonishing web of lies, betrayal and denial. When doing so, he has to rely heavily on the people surrounding him not telling anyone about their suspicions. Effie, who is in (unrequited) love with Kelsey, promises him she will never tell anyone that Kelsey and Neumeister are one and the same. When Annabelle wants to meet Neumeister in person to ask him about the circumstances of her husband's death, he writes her a very sympathetic letter (signed Neumeister), which she accepts instead of a personal meeting. Kelsey also sells his house, quits his job, gets a new one nearer to where Annabelle lives, moves out of the boarding house and buys a new house, now in his real name.

He now insists on seeing Annabelle more often, and when she refuses, he discovers that she's already seeing a man called Grant Barber. Believing she's just making another mistake, he arrives at her apartment and insists she leave with him; when Grant steps in, David violently assaults him and is eventually thrown out of the building by Annabelle's neighbours, who just about knock him out. Matters deteriorate further when Effie and Wes arrive at his house for the weekend. After some heavy drinking and quarrelling, David suffers memory lapses, demanding Wes call him 'Bill' (as in William Neumeister). When Wes leaves, David goes upstairs and thinks he sees Annabelle lying in his bed; however, when he realises that its actually Effie, he suddenly flies into a blind rage and throws her against the wall, inadvertently breaking her neck. He leaves (unaware that he's killed her), and drives past Wes's car in the road. David stays at a motel for the night and, upon hearing about Effie's death the next morning, goes on the run, his mind rapidly degenerating into confusion and insanity.

By the time Wes discovers Effie's body and the police realises that Neumeister is just Kelsey's alter ego, the latter is already in New York City. He has a leisurely day out with the imaginary Annabelle, pretending to take her to the Museum of Modern Art, clothes shopping and dinner at a fancy restaurant. However, the façade breaks down when said restaurant's head waiter ponders over the name of David Kelsey; David runs away into the night, believing himself to be accompanied by Annabelle, and eventually arrives at the home of old school acquaintance Ed Greenhouse. Ed's wife sneaks out into the apartment block hallway and calls the police, and David eventually drags himself onto the ledge outside their ninth floor window. Following desperate attempts by the police and fire crews to save his life, he eventually jumps to his death upon seeing Annabelle standing below him.

Film adaptations[edit]

This Sweet Sickness was first adapted in 1962 for an episode of the anthology television series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The episode, titled "Annabel," starred Dean Stockwell as David Kelsey. The novel was also the basis for the 1977 film Dites-lui que je l'aime (Tell Her I Love Her), starring Gérard Depardieu as David.

Matt Damon, who starred in the 1999 film adaptation of Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, expressed interest in writing "a really strict adaptation" of This Sweet Sickness[1] but no further adaptation has yet been produced.