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The Price of Salt (1952)
by Patricia Highsmith
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Rooney Mara was affectingly demure as Therese in the movie Carol, but the Therese in this book, upon which the movie was based, has harder edges. Like her boyfriend Richard and other male friends in the book who fall half in love with her, you want her to soften up a bit. Eventually you realize, though, that she's emotionally damaged from her orphan childhood. Patricia Highsmith later admitted in interviews that Therese was her nearly exact alter ego. The pain in the character mirrors the pain Highsmith herself later endured in her troubled, disordered, alcoholic life described by her biographers.
An intense story of love and obsession.
Carol (or The Price of Salt) is the first novel I've read by Highsmith, and hopefully it won't be the last.
Released in 1952, it was originally published under an alias. Highsmith's usual publishers (Harper) refused to publish it at all as they felt its lesbian theme would be suicide for her career.
This novel had some terrific characters and a thriller aspect to it which came as a surprise. As a reader we're never sure of Carol; she's the controlling force in the relationship, determining how it evolves and if it even evolves at all. For much of the novel we're suspicious of whether the younger and more inexperienced Theresa is anything more than a toy to her, and whilst we know that Theresa is clearly infatuated and in love, Highsmith keeps Carol's feelings veiled behind a cool, changeable demeanour and natural dominance born out of her wealth and the fact she is the older of the two.
Given the period in which the novel is set and attitudes towards homosexuality at that time, Highsmith is able to weave in some of her usual trademark thriller theme to the story which works really well. What will or won't transpire is out of the control of Theresa, the protagonist, which equally unnerves us as a reader.
4.5 stars - an enjoyable page-turner. Now to watch the movie.
Remember when this movie came out and a huge deal was made about it? I read the book and I can see why. I’ve read quite a lot of LGBT fiction these last few years, but this one really sticks out because it actually has a happy ending. Further diving into research after I read this book shows that it is probably the first lesbian romantic novel to have a happy ending! Which says a lot about it and a lot about the climate it was being written. The book has a wonderful history, and its author Patricia Highsmith has a wonderful story behind her too, so I urge you to look up more about it if you’re interested after reading this review.
Carol is a semi-autobiographical story, in that the starting point is what happened to Highsmith, and the rest is just story. Therese, our leading lady, is a nineteen year old aspiring stage designer living in New York who’s working in a department store over Christmas to make some extra cash. She falls madly in love with a woman she sees there buying a doll for her daughter, and from there the two strike up a friendship that quickly turns into something else. Soon it’s revealed that Carol is going through a divorce, and her husband wants full custody of her daughter because he knows that Carol prefers women and is using this against her in court. Soon, Carol and Therese go off on a road trip together, and their relationship is cemented. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled much of it, there’s a lot more to the story than that.
What I did really enjoy about this novel is that while it feels like a slow born, it really isn’t. True, for the longest time you’re never sure if Carol or Therese will act on their feelings – it’s a very ‘will they won’t they’ situation, but when they finally do come together it makes sense that they do then and not before. Mostly because Carol herself never reveals much about her feelings towards Therese.
And this brings me to my only criticism of the novel. Therese could do so much better.
Yes, Carol loves her. But my god, Carol can be really mean to her and Therese knows how volatile and mean she can be. So why on earth does Therese love Carol so much when she’s so mean to her? Maybe that’s me not understanding the love they have between them, but I do appreciate it. And I do appreciate the way that Carol thinks of Therese sometimes – young, naïve, and still having a lot of the world to discover and she should take the opportunity and not stay with Carol and miss out on the world.
The ending is incredibly satisfactory, and though I live with the belief that there was no real happy ending after the book ends (I don’t think that this couple was perfectly made for each other) I do think that the happy ending speaks a lot for itself and for the time it was written. There was a time when gay characters weren’t allowed to be happy in fiction. Having an ending where they actually turn back to each other, ready to give each other a chance and really try in a world that persecutes them for who they are, is nice; even if I don’t think they’d last much longer than the last page.
My final verdict is 3.5/5. I do enjoy this book and would recommend it. I just wish that the love interest that this book is so centred on was a bit more likeable.
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A chance encounter between two lonely women leads to a passionate romance in this lesbian cult classic. Therese, a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce, abandon their oppressive daily routines for the freedom of the open road, where their love can blossom. But their newly discovered bliss is shattered when Carol is forced to choose between her child and her lover. Highsmith's sensitive treatment of fully realized characters who defy stereotypes about homosexuality marks a departure from previous lesbian pulp fiction. Erotic, eloquent, and suspenseful, this story offers an honest look at the necessity of being true to one's nature.The Price of Salt is the basis for the upcoming film Carol, starring Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, and Kyle Chandler, to be released December 18, 2015.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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An edition of this book was published by W.W. Norton.