Published in 1952, The Price of Salt was originally attributed to Claire Morgan. Author Patricia Highsmith, famously known for her Mr. Ripley books and for writing Strangers on a Train, later made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, admitted she used a pseudonym because she was known as a thriller writer and didn’t want to be labeled a lesbian writer. Much of the lesbian romance was based on her own experiences. In 2015, a movie version, starring Kate Blanchette and Rooney Mara, was released under then name Carol, which is why some movie tie-in books are not titled The Price of Salt.
The story follows Therese, a nineteen-year old girl with a temporary job at a department store selling toys in the time leading up to Christmas. She has a boyfriend, Richard, with whom she has slept a few times, but she didn’t like it and has been distant from him. He keeps coming around, and she lets him come around, though she knows he’s having affairs. Really, Therese wants to work as a set designer in theater and seems lost about creating relationships with anyone. Richard is in school to be a painter, so you might expect two creative types to mesh well, but he’s known for a capricious nature, so Therese never expects much to result from his schooling.
While working the the toy counter one afternoon, a stunning, elegant woman walks into the department store in search of a doll for her daughter. This is Carol, a woman in her thirties, married but in the process of a divorce, who only works on a whim if something suits her. I’m not sure where the money comes from, but she seems to have it. There is electricity between the two, and after peeking at the delivery address for Carol’s purchased doll, Therese impulsively sends a Christmas card to Carol, thus starting their romantic relationship.
At the time of publication, Highsmith writes in the afterward, no one wrote a gay or lesbian romance novel that had a happy ending. For decades, she received letters from readers saying Therese and Carol’s relationship was similar to their own lives, or that they were happy to see that the lesbian lovers didn’t feel pushed to commit suicide or lead a tragic, solitary existence. I say this not to spoil the book — the ending is actually more up to interpretation that one might think — but because it famously has a happy ending.
And still, I struggled to get into Highsmith’s writing style and characters. Even though we’re in Therese’s head, I felt at a distance from her for most of the book, and Carol is even more confusing. I couldn’t tell if Carol was being motherly, angry, distant, if she was in love, what. When Biscuit and I met for our book club, neither of us had much to say. We did discuss how Richard seemed playful, almost childish, in comparison to Carol, but then we remembered he’s close in age to Therese, and Carol is almost twice Therese’s age. On the cover of my copy of the book, a note proclaims The Price of Salt inspired Lolita, but because Therese is nineteen, she seemed immature, not used or endangered, so I didn’t see the connection.
To be fair, Highsmith’s style of distancing characters from the reader worked beautifully in Strangers on a Train, which I’ve read several times. That distance, and the opportunity to analyze the characters from words and actions alone, made Bruno, our defacto antagonist, all the more threatening. Knowing everything Guy, the protagonist, is thinking and feeling makes the tension that much tighter. But, it had the opposite effect in The Price of Salt. I felt like I didn’t know any of the characters, and had a weak sense of the time period and culture that should have influenced their personalities and behaviors. The one person I wanted to know more about was Abby, Carol’s best friend since they were four, who is obviously trying to sniff out who Therese is and convince Carol to leave someone so young alone.
Perhaps an interesting read for the right kind of person, but wasn’t really for me.