Book review: The price of salt

Now a major film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol—which was launched as The Price of Salt under a pseudonym in 1952—tells the unlikely love story of Therese Beliver and Carol Aird.

With simple prose and keen observation, it captures the zeitgeist of the early 1950s and delivers an unfiltered perspective of the climate they were living in. More important though, is the fact that the issues they faced still hold relevance today, 64 years on.

Divided into two parts, the first half of the book moves sluggishly. It begins with an everyday encounter in a New York City department store, where nineteen-year-old Therese Belivet is working during the Christmas season. Carol is a sophisticated thirty-something-year-old woman, who is in the throes of divorce from her husband, Harge, and a custody battle for their only daughter, Rindy. When Carol meets Therese in the department store, they are inexorably drawn together. Despite its slow pace, there is still a wonderful sense of fleeting emotions.

Carol defied stereotypes and filled a niche which had previously condemned lesbians in pulp fiction to suicide or “cured” their sexuality, so as not to proselytise homosexuality. Carol deals with a relationship between two females during an age of intense homophobia without reducing either character to a trope, or depicting them as what used to be called congenital inverts—those who did not conform to the predominant image of gender.

Although the story centres on a love affair, Carol is hardly a conventional romance. Often, the book had less to do with Therese’s love for Carol than it did with her inability to resolve her feelings with what she knew about lesbian relationships. For both women, their erotic identity and desires responded to typical signs of heteronormative femininity that, particularly during the 50s, did not fit into the conventional image of a lesbian.

“She [Therese] had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that.”

Highsmith is well-known for her psychological thrillers and, true to form, this book reads in some ways as a thriller—sometimes suspenseful, other times Freudian. The story picks up considerably in the second half, when the beleaguered lovers embark on a road trip. After they discover they are being pursued by a detective Carol’s husband has hired as part of his custody case, they realise all they stand to lose. In Carol, we are taken away to a culture of paranoia and surveillance that both hijacks and heightens their love.

Carol is often hailed as the first book about lesbians that deviated from the conventional endings of lesbian fiction. Rather than leaving protagonists in devastation, the ending in many ways is almost hopeful.

In the afterword Highsmith contributed to the novel’s 1989 reprint, she said: “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”

Other queer literature published around the same time includes Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), which tragically ends with the male protagonist, Jim, murdering his former lover. In the revised edition, it ends with him being raped by his former lover, neither of which is a particularly happy ending. Under the pseudonym Vin Packer, author Marijane Meaker wrote Spring Fire, which was published the same year as The Price of Salt. Predominately a lesbian pulp novel, Spring Fire ends with one woman returning to heterosexuality and the other being committed to a mental institution.

This is part of the reason that Carol is so significant; it represents a part of America’s queer history without sending the message that gay identity must end in tragedy, though it was a possibility for Carol and Therese. Highsmith’s writing, with its subtle eroticism and suspenseful overtones, is undeniably good; however, to read this book is also to abruptly realise that in some ways, very little has changed.

Republished from Curieux Magazine.

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