June 2019: Patricia Highsmith

TalkMonthly Author Reads

Join LibraryThing to post.

June 2019: Patricia Highsmith

This topic is currently marked as "dormant"—the last message is more than 90 days old. You can revive it by posting a reply.

Mar 10, 2019, 12:17 pm

To end out the spring and kick start the summer, we'll be reading books by Patricia Highsmith!

Her most famous work The Talented Mr. Ripley was made into a movie and is on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It is also the first title in a five book series.

In case you missed it, I recently shared this article that talked quite a bit about her book The Price of Salt as well as details from her life: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/30/forbidden-love

Oddly enough, shortly after reading this article, I was watching an episode of the teen drama Riverdale that made reference to Highsmith and The Price of Salt when exploring a plotline related to a character who is gay and whose mother is, shall we say, not happy about this.

Jun 5, 2019, 3:32 pm

It's still early in June but I'm wondering if anyone picked up any Patricia Highsmith?

Jun 5, 2019, 7:51 pm

I haven't yet, but I read Talented Mr. Ripley a couple years ago and really liked it.

Jun 7, 2019, 7:47 am

I'm currently reading Two Faces of January

Jun 20, 2019, 2:11 pm

>4 BookConcierge: How are you liking it?

Jun 20, 2019, 2:13 pm

My hold on The Price of Salt finally came in but I had started another book in the meantime so I'm not sure if I'll get to it this month or might have to wait until July...

Jun 23, 2019, 5:04 pm

>5 sweetiegherkin:
I'm terribly behind in writing / posting reviews. But I did "enjoy" Two Faces of January ... despite three rather unlikeable characters.

Jun 24, 2019, 11:17 am

>7 BookConcierge: Good to know that it was an 'enjoyable' read.

I hear you with that ... I think I finally just caught up on all my reviews. Hate when I wait too long because then I start forgetting details of the book already!

Jun 25, 2019, 9:40 am

>6 sweetiegherkin: I am also planning to read The Price of Salt. I picked up the hold at the library yesterday.

Jun 27, 2019, 4:53 pm

The Two Faces Of January – Patricia Highsmith

From the book jacket. Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American expat working as a tour guide and running cons on the side. He is mostly killing time, searching for adventure. But in Cheter MacFarland, a charismatic American businessman, and his flirtatious and beautiful young wife, Colette, Rydal finds more than he bargained for. After an incident at a hotel puts the wealthy couple in danger, Rydal ties his fate to theirs.

My reactions
The only book by Patrician Highsmith that I’ve read previously was The Talented Mr Ripley. Once again, Highsmith manages to give us unlikeable characters that behave in ways that just keep this reader enthralled and interested, turning pages to find out what twists, turns and surprises the plot has in store.

As with Ripley, Keener is subject to “thinking” not with his head, but with his …. Well, he reacts based on lust and desire. Why he gets involved with these two to begin with is a mystery to me. And he gets entangled in their mess to a greater extent than he ever dreamed possible. But “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

Rydal and Chester try to outmaneuver one another, always thinking two or three steps ahead (or not). They are both facile liars, but hardly a match for Colette. Frankly you can’t trust a word any of them says. But that only adds to the suspense. The ending was a complete surprise to me, and I can’t say it was completely satisfying.

Still, this was a fast and entertaining read, though I did have to remind myself of the time and place and recall how much easier it was to change one’s identity in that era. Apparently, there was a movie made around 2014, but I never saw it nor even remember hearing much about it.

Jun 30, 2019, 9:23 pm

>10 BookConcierge: Hmm, interesting, now that you mention it, the deep recesses of my brain do seem to recall hearing about that movie but no particulars.

So I did finally start The Price of Salt and although I haven't gotten far, I'm enjoying it so far. It seems to be more a character-driven book than a plot-driven book, which I know isn't for everyone, but it works for me. Highsmith's writing style is evocative without being flowery.

Jul 6, 2019, 6:47 am

I finished The Price of Salt. Very interested in hearing all of your opinions!

>11 sweetiegherkin: I agree with you about it being character-driven. My only other Highsmith is Talented Mr Ripley, which has great characters but also a lot of plot, and this is a slower burn. I really like the way she writes this -- it's very contemplative and does a stunning job of dropping you into the time period in an intricately detailed but not heavy-handed way.

Some small spoilers:

I read in another review that this was the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending. Do you think it's a happy ending? I thought it was more ambiguous. They are together, but are they happy? Are they in long-haul love?

Jul 7, 2019, 3:16 pm

>12 sparemethecensor:

I just finished The Price of Salt today. I quite enjoyed it and think you succinctly described it.

re: spoiler
So yeah I read something about that too, which is interesting because when I read Annie on My Mind years ago, that was also described as the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending! But maybe that one was different because it specifically was for teens? Yes, the ending is ambiguous but I get the feeling it's supposed to be long-haul at this point because the barriers that were in their way are no longer there ... however, you could definitely also make the argument that they are still young in their love (it's only been a few months really, right?) and other things could happen. They both were in previous long-term relationships that didn't last. However, a lot of earlier LGBT books ended with one or both of the characters dying or something else incredibly extreme, so even this ambiguous ending is much happier. And you could probably make the argument with a lot of romance books that they are together in the end but is it really for the long haul?

Some quotes that really stood out to me:

"They're not horrid. One's just supposed to conform. I know what they'd like, they'd like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly." (Carol describing Harge's family to Therese, early on in their relationship)

"I don't mean people like that. I mean two people who fall in love suddenly with each other, out of the blue. Say two men or two girls ... I suppose it could happen, though, to almost anyone, couldn't it?" (part of Therese's dialogue during the kite scene)

"She had seen just now what she had only sensed before, that the whole world was ready to be their enemy, and suddenly what she and Carol had together seemed no longer love or anything happy but a monster between them, with each of them caught in a fist." (a sad, but unfortunately likely true picture of being a lesbian in the 50s)

There's definitely lots of symbolism is this book, and I'm sure I missed some of it in this first reading; this seems like a title that you could re-read and get more out of it each time.

One thing that struck me was Therese's mention of the train set at the department store. The 'study help' site Shmoop has this explanation:

Choo Choo Choose Her
In the book's first chapter, Therese observes a toy train. It's not a big train, "but there was a fury in its tiny pumping pistons that the bigger trains did not possess" (1.28). All aboard!

She mentions the toy train again to Carol, once, much later in the novel. But it's up to us to analyze why Therese is so drawn to this train. Does she think she is like the train? Does she possess a fury? And is she like the train? Or has her train of thought gone off track here? Over to you, Shmoopers— make your case.

The train set actually reminded me of the movie Holiday Affair, which was released in 1949. (The Price of Salt was published in 1952.) Wikipedia's description of the movie starts: "Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a veteran and drifter, is employed as a clerk during the Christmas season at Crowley's, a New York department store. He suspects customer Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) of being a comparative shopper for a rival store when she buys an expensive toy train set without asking a single question about it." The movie goes on to explore a budding romance between the two, despite Connie being a war widow with a child (who desperately wants said train set and gets it as a Christmas gift from Steve Mason) and despite Connie now being engaged to be married to a stable but boring man she knows. I couldn't help but see the big-picture parallels between that romantic comedy and this. I'm wondering if it's possible Highsmith knew the movie and was trying to say 'hey, look, here's another romance for you! It's just like one you know, except not as heteronormative!' Or on the flip side, saying, 'when it's a man and a woman, you can have a laughs and a happy ending, but if it's two women, you get heartache and a more ambiguous ending (no one gets a train set).' I could be reading more into it than is there but, like I said, I couldn't help drawing parallels.

One more thing that I thought was symbolic but I probably missed the symbolism, perhaps somewhat spoiler-ish ...

When Therese returns the car to Carol after their road trip split: "Then as she saw Carol touch the handle of the car door, she remembered the beer can still under the front seat, remembered its clink as she had driven up the ramp from the Lincoln Tunnel coming into New York. She had thought then, she must get it out before she gave the car back to Carol, but she had forgotten. Therese hurried on to the hotel."

This is the same beer can mentioned after their encounter with the detective on the road: "The car jolted over a rut, and Therese heard the bump and clink of the can of beer that rolled somewhere under the front seat, the beer they had not been able to open that first day."

And this is the first mention of that beer can: "When they stopped for gas, Therese tried to buy some stout, which Carol liked sometimes, at a grocery store next to the gas station, but they had only beer. She bought one can, because Carol didn’t care for beer. Then they drove into a little road off the highway and stopped, and opened the box of sandwiches Richard’s mother had put up. There was also a dill pickle, a mozzarella cheese, and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. Therese had forgotten to ask for an opener, so she couldn’t open the beer, but there was coffee in the thermos. She put the beer can on the floor in the back of the car." They go on to talk about caviar and acquired tastes and about Therese's drinking coffee when they first met.

I'm sure there's some significance here, but I'm not quite sure what. Any thoughts?

>7 BookConcierge: Reading The Price of Salt, I did get a sense of what you said about unlikeable characters. I didn't like or dislike the characters here per se, but their actions could sometimes be frustrating. Having internal motivations definitely helped, but I found myself liking Therese less by the end of the book and liking Carol more than I did in the beginning.

My library also had a copy of the movie Carol, based on The Price of Salt, so I borrowed that and hope to watch it tonight or tomorrow night to make comparisons with the book.

Jul 7, 2019, 3:38 pm

>13 sweetiegherkin: Re-reading the article I shared earlier and see that Highsmith herself worked at a department store and waited on a woman who attracted her and bought a doll from her. So that part was based on her own life, not inspired by the Holiday Affair movie connection ... although I still feel like the train set tie-in is there anyhow, although it could all be coincidence.

>12 sparemethecensor: Also, another line from that article: "They were together for only a year—Highsmith’s affairs rarely lasted much longer than that" adds fodder to your 'is this really a happy ending?' thoughts, especially given that Highsmith's lover in question was probably an inspiration for Carol, at least in part. And also, the last paragraph of the article touches on the book's amibigous ending as well: "In the final pages of The Price of Salt, Carol has lost custody of her daughter, but nobody has died or been institutionalized. By modern standards, the book’s ending has the pat feel of a Sirk picture, abruptly reuniting lovers for whom the obstacles are enormous. Will Carol really get over relinquishing her daughter? Can the two women truly be left alone to make a life together? Highsmith almost circumvents those doubts; the novel’s last scene has the pull of a torch song. Therese finds Carol in a restaurant, where she’s dining with friends: 'It was like meeting Carol all over again, but it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.' Leave it to Highsmith to get hell in there, too."

Jul 7, 2019, 3:47 pm

Can we also talk about the title? I was wondering about the significance of it, and pulled the quotes from the book that mention salt (not counting all the mentions of Salt Lake City during the road trip):

"She could see the details of Richard’s hand, which hung limply out of his overcoat sleeve, and she was conscious again of their incongruity with his limber, long-boned body. They were thick, even plump looking hands, and they moved in the same inarticulate, blind way if they picked up a saltshaker or the handle of a suitcase. Or stroked her hair, she thought. The insides of his hands were extremely soft, like a girl’s, and a little moist. Worst of all, he generally forgot to clean his nails, even when he took the trouble to dress up. Therese had said something about it a couple of times to him, but she felt now that she couldn’t say anything more without irritating him." (Therese looking at Richard the first time they meet Phil and Danny.)

"Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a mélange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears. She was telling Carol all that she feared and disliked, of her loneliness, of Richard, and of gigantic disappointments. And of her parents." (I believe this was when Therese first spends the night at Carol's house.)

"In the middle of the block, she opened the door of a coffee shop, but they were playing one of the songs she
had heard with Carol everywhere, and she let the door close and walked on. The music lived, but the world was dead. And the song would die one day, she thought, but how would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?" (I believe this is in the South Dakota interlude.)

"She felt shy with him, yet somehow close, a closeness charged with something she had never felt with Richard. Something suspenseful, that she enjoyed. A little salt, she thought. She looked at Danny’s hand on the table, at the strong muscle that bulged below the thumb. She remembered his hands on her shoulders that day in his room. The memory was a pleasant one." (Also during the South Dakota interlude?)

And this copy of the book has an afterword from the author you can read in case your book does not include it (mine did not):

Jul 7, 2019, 3:52 pm

>7 BookConcierge: from the afterword re: your spoiler

"The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. 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. Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as 'Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.'”

Jul 7, 2019, 6:50 pm

Thanks for sharing that afterword. It was very self centered of me to talk about my doubts about its happy ending -- in the modern context we see very different things and knowing that all other novels of that era end with suicide and institutionalization makes this a completely different beast.

To me the title is a metaphorl. Salt makes food come alive...what is the price (losing custody, being estranged from society) of what makes them come alive (their relationship with each other)?

Jul 7, 2019, 9:58 pm

>17 sparemethecensor: It was not at all self-centered! I think the ending is intentionally vague. Even Highsmith's afterword seemed to imply a sort 'for now' attitude toward it. But you're right about modern eyes giving a different view to things ... before reading this, I was reading Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and its sequel Leah on the Offbeat, both of which have pretty Hollywood-esque happy endings for LGBT characters, so this was a bit of a shift from that.

Oooo, I definitely like that interpretation of the title.

And, oh, another quote from towards that end of the book that struck me:

“You know, you look very fine,” Carol said. “You’ve come out all of a sudden. Is that what comes of getting away from me?”
“No,” Therese said quickly. She frowned down at the tea she didn’t want. Carol’s phrase “come out” had made her think of being born, and it embarrassed her. Yes, she had been born since she left Carol. She had been born the instant she saw the picture in the library, and her stifled cry then was like the first yell of an infant, being dragged into the world against its will. She looked at Carol. “There was a picture in the library at Sioux Falls,” she said. Then she told Carol about it, simply and without
emotion, like a story that had happened to somebody else.

Again, looking at now versus then might make a difference. It's a beautiful passage any way you look at it, but I can't help wondering if "coming out" had the same meaning it does now at all.

Edited: Jul 8, 2019, 6:16 am

I've seen Carol and loved it. It's too long ago for me to remember details. I do remember that I could imagine the women's feelings and behaviour. It has a special atmosphere and beautiful shots which sometimes felt like paintings of Edward Hopper. I didn't read the book.
Always interesting to think about the different position of the two protagonists as: social background, age, experience and how that influences their relation. Esther

Jul 8, 2019, 12:43 pm

>19 EMS_24: Hm, yeah, it was interesting to see the two women who were 'on paper' so different interact so well together.

Jul 9, 2019, 9:37 am

I watched the film version last night and thought it was a pretty good adaptation that caught the spirit of the book, even though it changed a lot of particulars. However, the ending lacked some 'oomph' ... even though it basically showed the last paragraph exactly, without Therese's thoughts in that moment it felt pretty lackluster.

Jul 11, 2019, 7:22 am

>21 sweetiegherkin: Thanks for the movie review. I think this is common with movie adaptations -- losing the emotional punch when you can't see the character's inner dialogue.

Jul 11, 2019, 11:33 am

>22 sparemethecensor: Yes, some movies manage to make it work visually and/or with voiceovers. In this case, I felt like the movie was a complement to the book rather than a replacement; you could definitely get the gist of the story by just watching the movie, but you miss out on a lot of what made the book really good.

Jul 11, 2019, 2:53 pm

I just started Those Who Walk Away and it gets off to a very fast start indeed.

It's a non-Ripley book (I've read them all) and the very proper grammar and sentence structure sticks out compared to how 21st century thriller authors write. For example the lamps were lighted not lit which is correct, lit is a state of being for a light not a past tense. In common usage we often use lit as past tense so it probably passes the smell test now. Anyway...I like Highsmith a lot and hope this one turns out as much sinister fun as The Blunderer.