Believe it or not, Carol is my first Patricia Highsmith. In the past, I’ve dismissed her work as ‘not my thing’ (on account of me being coverist* – you know those crime novels with darkly coloured covers and the author’s name in blocky gold-foil font, often found lying about at beach houses? That.) Anyway, I changed my mind a few years ago when I saw the fantastic play, Switzerland – Highsmith is the subject and the play included bizarre biographical details (things like carrying snails around in handbags). I was intrigued.
Perhaps Carol was an odd place to start because it is not representative of Highsmith’s main body of work (psychological thrillers). It’s the story of Therese Belivet, a lonely young woman beginning her life in Manhattan. Therese is struggling to break into a career in set design and is dating Richard, a man she has no deep feelings for. She takes a job in a department store during the Christmas rush where she meets Carol Aird, a customer buying a doll for her daughter. On impulse, Therese sends Carol a Christmas card. Carol is going through a divorce and is also lonely, and the two begin a friendship that quickly turns to love.
Harge, Carol’s ex-husband, is suspicious of Therese, and Richard accuses Therese of having a ‘schoolgirl crush’ – ‘You don’t understand.’ But he did, and that was why he was angry. When Carol and Therese decide to take a road-trip across America, their situation becomes more complicated.
Carol was originally published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym ‘Claire Morgan’. In the Afterword, Highsmith states that she used an alias because she didn’t want to be labelled a ‘lesbian-book writer’. Highsmith had become an overnight success as a ‘suspense writer’ with Strangers on a Train, and knew that suspense sold books. But The Price of Salt was an important book – novels about unequivocal lesbian relationships where the characters aren’t forced to end their affair (or their lives), live in a repressed way, or cast out of society, were non-existent at the time it was published.
The emotional motivations for the characters were not wholly convincing at the beginning, however, Highsmith’s precise but tender style won me over. Of Therese’s growing love for Carol, she writes –
Therese watched Carol knock the water out of her toothbrush, and turn from the basin, blotting her face with a towel. Nothing about Richard mattered so much to her as the way Carol blotted her face with a towel.
Themes of attachment and abandonment were remarkably well done, and embedded in various layers of the story through the mother-child relationships (Carol and her daughter, and Therese and her absent mother), and the lovers (Carol/ Harge/ Abby and Therese/ Carol / Richard)
“Is there a word? A friend, a companion, or maybe just a sharer. What good are words? I mean, I think people often try to find through sex things that are much easier to find in other ways.”
And finally, Highsmith’s writing about love without a trace of shame or fear reads simply – I reckon it’s a feat to write about love in that way, without the love sounding like infatuation or fantasy –
“It is a question of pleasure after all, and what’s the use of debating the pleasure of an ice-cream cone versus a football game – or a Beethoven quartet versus the Mona Lisa.
3.5/5 A good start for me with Patricia.
They had Old Fashioneds in the bar of the hotel, in complete silence.
*possible that I made that word up… basically making assumptions about a book/ genre based on the cover.