The Price of Salt/Carol by Patricia Highsmith

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.

17 comments

  1. I haven’t read the book but I saw the movie and liked it well enough but didn’t love it because the movie had that feeling of distance to it to you describe about the book.

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    • You’re so right; I didn’t love the movie either. I wonder if it’s one I just needed to watch again? I saw it because I like Highsmith but didn’t bother to read a summary first. I think I was also troubled by how much Carol’s character claims to love her daughter, but is never with her.

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  2. I saw the film, and remebered how well Cate (not Kate) played that role, but I don’t remember a lot about it except that the relationships were complex. Maybe the inspiration for Lolita was partly the age difference and partly that sense of distance you mentioned? It’s a long time since I’ve read Lolita though, and I haven’t read The price of salt, so I’m just stabbing in the dark.

    I find that sometimes, when we don’t love a book, we get more discussion as we try to tease out why, but it sounds like that didn’t happen for you and Biscuit.

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    • When I listened to the audiobook of Lolita, I felt like Humbert Humbert was so close to Lolita that he was going to smother her, even in the moments when she was far away from him. Such a creepy, effective story.

      Another aspect of The Price of Salt that made me feel distant was how often the characters express one thing but behave differently. For instance, because Carol is having a lesbian romance, at the time she could have her daughter removed from her custody. Carol is angry that she could be denied access to her daughter, but in the entire novel the two are never together, not that I can remember. How can a person love a child so deeply from afar? If the child is always with her father, shouldn’t he have full custody anyway? Carol’s not even at home; she’s on an unplanned road trip with no idea of when she’ll return.

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      • Love is a strange emotion – as both Lolita (though most of us wouldn’t call that “love”) and The price of salt show. It can be selfish, selfless, or anything in between, can’t it.

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        • Absolutely. It can be scary and deadly, it can be all consuming and clingy. Biscuit and I just read a novel titled Love by Roddy Doyle, and I’m going to have to ask her what the title even refers to.

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  3. This doesn’t sound much like Lolita at all. Though it does sound like there’s a power differential between the two characters, but when I think of Lolita, I think of straight up grooming and abuse. Your mention of Carol’s friend makes me wonder if this is actually the type of story that would be better told via a third character. Then the distance might make more sense.

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    • That’s a great idea, Karissa, and I hadn’t considered how the novel would read differently from a different perspective. There is the age difference, like Lolita, so I wonder if Nabokov saw The Price of Salt as a novel about potential abuse and what would happen if he pushed it, changing the genders to male and female and the ages to “of age” and “minor.” It seems like Highsmith’s novel might serve as a spring board of “what if’s.”

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    • Strangers on a Train got me all twisted up in knots! All these moments when I was thinking, “Please don’t do the weird thing!” and then Bruno does the weird thing. He’s such a little creep, and he fits perfectly into a thriller novel.

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  4. Hmm that’s too bad it was dull, but I’m glad it had a happy ending (or at least, a somewhat ambiguously happy one). I watched the trailer for Carol, and it does look like a nice movie, one I’d likely watch on my own because Aaron would probably fall asleep during it. I do want to read Strangers on a Train though, I’m sure I’d like that one.

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    • Strangers on a Train is such a tense novel, to me. The movie certainly loses a lot of that, perhaps because you can’t always get the interior details of a novel onto the screen, or perhaps Hitchcock just fussed with the script too much, as he was wont to do, and took away some of the intensity. I’m always happy David O. Selznick, the producer on Hitchcock’s film Rebecca, was there to make the director stick to the book!

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