One of my all-time favorite movies is All About Eve, the 1950 Bette Davis classic about the Theatre (capital T, British spelling), ambition, friendship, and bumpy nights. Reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (also known as Carol, and the basis for the new film of that name) was like seeing another camera angle on 1950s New York.
Therese is an aspiring set designer with a boyfriend she doesn’t love (which he knows) and a temporary job in the toy department of a large New York department store when she sees Carol Aird across the counter. Carol is about ten years older and very beautiful; they are instantly drawn to each other, and when Therese sends Carol a Christmas card, the two women strike up an unusual friendship.
Carol is in the midst of a bitter divorce and custody battle, and without the prospect of seeing her daughter for months, she invites Therese on a winter road trip west. Therese accepts, and away from New York, the two are able to acknowledge their love for each other.
Unfortunately, Carol’s husband has hired a private investigator to follow them. Soon Carol is forced to choose between her daughter and Therese, with unexpected consequences. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s say that it isn’t the tragic one that you might expect from 50s lesbian pulp fiction (which this book has been billed as—in error, I’d say); it reminded me strongly of the ending of Mrs. Dalloway, actually.
I absolutely loved this book, so much that I wish I’d written a review straight off instead of waiting this long. It’s a book about women who are different from what their culture, their friends expect them to be, and there are wonderful lines that still resonate about envying those who always have a place in the world, living as a filled-in person, rather than a blank, and so on. I liked these lines about uncertainty:
“Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.”
Patricia Highsmith is widely known for her psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley (neither of which I’ve read), and the pacing of the second half of this book shows her ability to build extraordinary tension. However, it’s the first half of The Price of Salt that is going to stay with me. The writing is superbly detailed, while subtle visual cues abound (I’d love to write an essay on “green” in the novel, a color often associated with girls and very young women [think “salad days” and the early modern malady greensickness], but here used as Carol’s signature color). Therese’s perspective is wrought with such intensity that I occasionally had to put the book down to regroup; I think The Price of Salt gives the best evocation of love at first sight that I’ve ever read.
Even if midcentury LGBT fiction or psychological fiction aren’t in your wheelhouse, I recommend this book, not only for the writing, but also for its portrayal of a completely different America. The bits that at the time of its publication might have seemed mundane (what Therese thinks of as “the soldier substance that made up one’s life”)—buying a handbag and arranging to pick it up later, the etiquette of smoking, how people set up the timing of dates and meetings, the ability to pick up a job on no notice in a strange town—are tantalizingly interesting now.
I am dying to talk about this book with someone else who’s read it, so please let me know if you have. Have you seen the movie adaptation (Carol)? If so, what did you think?