Book Review: “The Price of Salt” (1952) by Patricia Highsmith


Cate Blanchett in the 2015 movie adaptation, Carol.


Before the 2015 movie Carol started raking in the Oscar nominations, the general public mostly knew Patricia Highsmith for her psychological thrillers Strangers On A Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), two stories about mystery and murder. In fact, The Price of Salt is the only one of Highsmith’s novels that does not feature a violent crime – but it is still incredibly suspenseful. Yes, Highsmith introduces a gun in the third act, but there is more to it than that; this story about two women falling in love in 1950s New York City is set up like a detective. The protagonist, Therese, sets out to solve a very specific puzzle: does Carol love me back? Is there a chance we can be together? Do I dare to put everything on the line for her?

In an interview with Indiewire, director Todd Haynes said:

[The Price of Salt] brings that same sense of the criminal to the amorous mind and the amorous experience. And what it feels like to begin to fall in love with somebody and not know how they feel in return.
So you’re watching every detail and every sign for a clue as to where you stand. And the mind is in this extremely productive state that is very much like the criminal mind, imagining every outcome and every possible scenario that could you get caught. And in that way it does an extremely good job of linking something extremely universal to something sort of transgressive.

This hits the nail right on the head, and also emphasizes how much is at stake for Therese and Carol as they navigate this minefield of a courtship. A broken heart is the least of their problems; they always have to look over their shoulders and make sure that they are not caught. By pursuing the object of their affection, these women risk losing their reputation and even their family. The air crackles with their mutual attraction, but before they can take the plunge, they have to test the waters through meaningful looks and soft touches. This is especially true when they interact in a public space; there are eyes and ears everywhere.

The connection between Therese and Carol is immediate; their eyes meet across a crowded room, and from that moment on, their fate seems to be sealed. Carol is cautious and gives very little away at first (as a mother, she has more to lose), but Therese cannot stop herself; she is intoxicated by Carol’s perfume, hypnotized by her bright eyes.

“Is it anything to be ashamed of?”
“Yes. You know that, don’t you?” Carol asked in her even, distinct voice.
“In the eyes of the world it’s an abomination.”
The way she said it. Therese could not quite smile. “You don’t believe that.”
“”People like Harge’s family.”
“They’re not the whole world.”
“They are enough. And you have to live in the world.”

Therese and Carol are drawn together like magnets and neither of them can resist the pull. It is attraction at its purest and at its most powerful.

Reading this, you might think to yourself: “well, this cannot end well. I know how this song goes.” Surely Carol goes back to her husband. Surely she shoots the private detective and is arrested for murder. Surely her husband murders her. Surely Therese ends up miserable and alone, forever scarred by the experience. It’s the 1950s, after all; there is no way these two women can have a happy ending. Except that they do, and this, in itself, is extraordinary. Carol and Therese are put through hell and have to make sacrifices, but in the end, they stop their car right at the edge of Tragic Gays Canyon, where all too many a queer storyline have gone to die, and turn around. In her 1989 afterword, Highsmith herself writes:

Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

This brings to mind what E.M. Forster said on writing the ending to his novel Maurice:

 A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense, Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.

Forster wrote this novel in 1913-1914, but it wasn’t published until after his death, in 1971. For a very long time, giving your queer characters a happy ending was an act of rebellion.

Whether you believe that Therese and Carol are going to stay together for the rest of their lives or not, at least they have a chance; neither of them have died, suffered from a mental breakdown, or gone back to their previous heterosexual relationships. They might make it – and considering the novel’s historical context, that is pretty spectacular.

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