In the late 40s, shortly after she sold the rights to her first book Strangers on a Train (as far as I remember, Hitchcock basically swindled her), Patricia Highsmith worked for a couple of weeks at the toy department of a store, where she met a stunning woman: a poised, rich-looking, beautiful blonde who asked for a toy for her daughter. The author sold her some doll and learned the woman’s address, because the store would deliver the toy there. More importantly for Patricia, she had come to realize something: she was in love at first sight with a woman. That was a problem for many reasons, one of them that she was dating a guy.
At home, in feverish two hours, Highsmith wrote the entire treatment for the story that would end up becoming The Price of Salt / Carol, a novel she would have never considered writing before. The author grew a fever shortly after; some kid at the store had exposed her to chicken pox. She had to quit her job. Since that day at the store, she only came close to the stunning blonde once: Patricia visited New Jersey and stared at the married woman’s home from a distance, as she likely wished that she could belong to that place.
This book follows a nineteen-year-old girl named Therese Belivet. Her parents abandoned her, she grew up in some sort of boarding school, and now she works at the toy department of a store, although she wishes she could become a stage designer. She’s dating a guy called Richard who’s a bit of a dilettante: he wants to become a professional painter, but he has little talent and doesn’t apply himself. He’s mainly trying to avoid his destiny of working at his family’s business.
One day a poised, rich-looking, beautiful blonde enters the toy department wanting to buy a present for her daughter. After the transaction, which included a pleasant interaction between them, Carol forgets some item at the store. The protagonist does something that the author likely wouldn’t have dared to do: she mails it to the woman’s residence along with some words to remember Therese by. Carol, touched, asks her out for lunch, which sets both women on a path of degeneration (a quote included later on features a rebuttal from this Carol character about such notion).
Carol is getting divorced because she doesn’t love her husband, and some months ago had a fling with a long-term female friend of hers. Now she risks losing her daughter because her husband, who is a no-nonsense business guy, wants full custody due to Carol’s lack of moral compass (mostly because her lover was another woman).
Given that Carol is based on an idealized love-at-first-sight, the author could have put her on a pedestal, but Carol, in the narrator’s words, is “a woman with a child and a husband, with freckles on her hands and a habit of cursing, of growing melancholy at unexpected moments, with a bad habit of indulging her will.” I found her quite compelling. In contrast, the protagonist felt somewhat vague until the last quarter of the story.
The bulk of the story consists of a roadtrip that both women take heading West. Therese loves Carol, but suspects that she may be a convenient distraction for the older woman, who has enough to worry about with the divorce. Meanwhile, her husband has money to spare to figure out how his estranged wife may want to enjoy her trip with a barely twenty-year-old girl.
Highsmith puts us then-and-there along with her protagonist: we are never sure of anyone else’s intentions, or even what’s going on some of the time, because Therese herself doesn’t know. Carol has lived a complicated life up to that point, and at times I felt as superfluous to Carol and her former lover Abby’s conversations, as well as those between Carol and her husband, as the protagonist herself did, which I consider a point in the novel’s favor; most of what I ask from a story is to make me step into the protagonist’s POV and live vicariously through them.
Patricia’s writing felt somewhat meagre throughout the first quarter of the story, maybe in part because she had never written anything like it (Strangers on a Train was her first novel). The prose improves consistently until the end.
As I mentioned in my review of one of the author’s most prominent biographies, supported by at least one of Patricia’s friends who was a psychiatrist, Patricia Highsmith seemed to be on the autistic spectrum. Her anxiety and sensory issues are on full display during the scenes at the toy department, and throughout the story, the protagonist’s (and author’s) inability to properly read people or even understand her own impulses come into play. The author’s obsession with the real-life Carol, as well as the less prominent behavior of Therese towards the fictional one, are characteristic of autism as well (and I know plenty about that).
This afternoon, after I finished the book, I sat down to watch the movie adaptation released in 2016, starring Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol. Blanchett was wonderful as her character; unfortunately, whoever wrote the screenplay manipulated the original in idiotic, and for me infuriating, ways. Instead of a stage designer (in the novel she gets paid a couple of times to work as one), movie Therese wants to be a photographer even though she barely has a camera; it makes her seem like a dilettante. Her boyfriend, Richard, just works at the same store and lacks any dreams or artistic sensibilities. Far worse yet: following the recent tradition in the media of shitting on men, that has become the norm in Western society for the last twenty years or so, the main male characters are depicted as obnoxious, brutish and irrational. Patricia didn’t write them that way. I couldn’t get past the midpoint of the movie for that reason.
Patricia Highsmith chose to publish this novel with the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, and afterwards she started frequenting gay bars in New York, where she became a local legend. I recently watched a short documentary about Highsmith that mentioned that the lesbian ladies of New York referred to Patricia as the White Wolf, because of her ravenous appetite, the fact that she was white, and that she hunted monsters for coin. Patricia mentioned in her diaries, using different words, that she got enough pussy to last her several lifetimes.
I’m a guy and I can’t consider myself a lesbian even if I wanted to (although Patricia and I seem to have the same taste in
dommy mommies women), but this story made me experience again that unique gift of written fiction: the author captured through words alone two real human beings that remain as alive and young as they were now ages ago, and that will, one supposes, go on loving each other endlessly.
Here are the quotes I highlighted:
Therese’s lips opened to speak, but her mind was too far away. Her mind was at a distant point, at a distant vortex that opened on the scene in the dimly lighted, terrifying room where the two of them seemed to stand in desperate combat. And at the point of the vortex where her mind was, she knew it was the hopelessness that terrified her and nothing else. It was the hopelessness of Mrs. Robichek’s ailing body and her job at the store, of her stack of dresses in the trunk, of her ugliness, the hopelessness of which the end of her life was entirely composed. And the hopelessness of herself, of ever being the person she wanted to be and of doing the things that person would do. Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.
There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant. She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves.
I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.
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.
Therese frowned, floundering in a sea without direction or gravity, in which she knew only that she could mistrust her own impulses.
Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh. She had a vision of a pale white flower, shimmering as if seen in darkness, or through water. Why did people talk of heaven, she wondered.
If she ever had an impulse to tell Carol, the words dissolved before she began, in fear and in her usual mistrust of her own reactions, the anxiety that her reactions were like no one else’s, and that therefore not even Carol could understand them.
Between the pleasure of a kiss and of what a man and woman do in bed seems to me only a gradation. A kiss, for instance, is not to be minimized, or its value judged by anyone else. I wonder do these men grade their pleasure in terms of whether their actions produce a child or not, and do they consider them more pleasant if they do. It is a question of pleasure after all, and what’s the use debating the pleasure of an ice cream cone versus a football game–or a Beethoven quartet versus the Mona Lisa. I’ll leave that to the philosophers. But their attitude was that I must be somehow demented or blind (plus a kind of regret, I thought, at the fact that a fairly attractive woman is presumably unavailable to men). […] The most important point I did not mention and was not thought of by anyone–that the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman, and perhaps some people want just this, as others want that more shifting and uncertain thing that happens between men and women. It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing–that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition.
It was Carol she loved and would always love. Oh, in a different way now, because she was a different person, and 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.