Title: Carol/The Price of Salt (1952)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Read: 21st – 24th February 2018
Genre: romance; LGBTQ
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“Therese is just an ordinary sales assistant working in a New York department store when a beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter. Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for the first shock of love. Therese is an awkward nineteen-year-old with a job she hates and a boyfriend she doesn’t love; Carol is a sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter. As Therese becomes irresistibly drawn into Carol’s world, she soon realises how much they both stand to lose…
First published pseudonymously in 1952 as The Price of Salt, Carol is a hauntingly atmospheric love story set against the backdrop of fifties’ New York.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
As suggested by the synopsis, Carol (or The Price of Salt as it was originally titled) tells the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman living with (but emotionally and physically distant from) her boyfriend Richard in New York and stuck in an unfulfilling job in a high-end department store. Although she appears young and inexperienced in life, her true passion lies in stage design, but it is in her dead-end day job that she meets an enigmatic customer, Carol Aird, whose appearance forever changes the course of Therese’s life. She finds herself more and more inexplicably drawn towards this older, glamorous woman who is trapped within her own loveless marriage and seems utterly unsuited to the boring life of a suburban housewife.
” ‘Do people always fall in love with things they can’t have?’
‘Always,’ Carol said, smiling, too.”
However, what the book’s synopsis doesn’t adequately portray is the oppressive nature of Therese’s yearning for Carol – it is painful on occasion to read of the two of them and sense the longing underneath their seemingly empty words – nor does it do justice to the more serious and risky path which they both stumble down when they agree to take a trip together across the United States. I was not expecting that, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by its addition as the stakes suddenly shifted and it turned from a novel about obsession and love to also highlighting the dangers of obsession and what you stand to lose by loving someone, for better or for worse.
“What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end?
Those were the real questions, and who could answer them.”
Whilst the writing style was very evocative and polished, I found the narrative voice to be much too distant for me to feel truly connected to the protagonist Therese, even as her romantic obsession with the eponymous Carol unfolded. I felt like I was watching a story play out (which gives me high hopes for the film adaptation), but I could never grasp tangibly at any of the characters or their motivations and instead they remained unobtainable. Perhaps this was intentional, but I found it a tad frustrating. Likewise, the slightly hazy airy-fairy feel of the narration meant that when the turn of this book happened, and you began to see shots of Highsmith’s psychological crime pedigree, the content seemed to be at odds with the form.
“I know what they’d like, they’d like a blank they could fill in.
A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.”
In conclusion, Carol was well and truly a case of the narrative voice just not quite working for me, even though the plot and the characters were well realised and skilfully drawn by Patricia Highsmith. It’s difficult to criticise the novel on the level of the romance or depictions of sexuality, as some of the plot is inspired by her own life, and I myself can’t speak to how accurate the representation is. However, I am confident that, if nothing else, Carol is a deeply worthwhile read to see an ending for LGBTQ characters that is not all doom and gloom.
“‘How do you ever expect to create anything if you get all your experiences second-hand?’ Carol asked her, her voice soft and even, and yet merciless”