Carol (originally titled The Price of Salt)
by Patricia Highsmith
This book was on my list of books-made-into-high-profile-movies to read.
Originally published in 1952, this novel is the story of Therese Belevit, a nineteen-year old aspiring stage set designer, and Carol Aird, a beautiful and affluent housewife going through a divorce. The two meet when Therese is working a temp job during the Christmas rush in the toy department of a Manhattan department store, and Carol comes in to buy a doll for her young daughter. The attraction between the two women is immediate. Soon, they’re meeting for lunch, and then Therese is spending a great deal of time at Carol’s house. Eventually, Carol decides to take a cross-country road trip, and invites Therese to accompany her. It is on this road trip that the simmering attraction and emotions between the two women culminates in an affair. However, Carol’s estranged husband is determined to make the divorce acrimonious, and he wants sole custody of his and Carol’s daughter. Having discovered the nature of Carol’s relationship with Therese, he sends a private investigator to tail the two women and accumulate damning evidence against Carol.
You have to keep in mind the time period during which this story was written, and during which it takes place. The 1950s was not a time when homosexuality was generally accepted. At that time (and unfortunately even now, among some circles), it was seen as a form of mental illness and/or moral depravity. As such, the novel is very restrained in its exploration of a romantic/sexual relationship between two women. Even bearing this in mind, though, I found the story to be tedious, and often even tiresome. It sort of jumps around a lot, and there are conversations and scenes that drag on and seem unnecessary to the story. Also, though I tried to be sympathetic to the characters, it was hard to not feel that Carol was taking advantage of Therese to some extent. Therese, rejected by her mother and virtually an orphan, clearly has a mother-shaped hole in her heart (I don’t mean to imply that her sexual attraction to Carol wasn’t genuine, I just felt that her feelings were definitely complicated by her own familial baggage), and Carol, quite a bit older than Therese, often seems not only maternal to Therese, but also to sort of toy with her.
There is an afterword by the author in my copy of the book, written many years after the book’s initial publication. In it, Highsmith discusses the positive response to the book by gay and lesbian readers, largely because it has a happy ending. Up to that time, most stories involving same-sex relationships ended in suicide or some other tragedy. While I can see how refreshing it must have been during that particular era to see a story in which the relationship doesn’t end tragically, it can’t be ignored that ultimately, Carol loses her daughter (and there is a parallel there between Carol giving up her daughter for a woman whose own mother gave her up, leaving her damaged). This left me very conflicted, and I suppose at that time, there was to be no “win-win” situation; Carol had to choose between her daughter and living an authentic life. Hence the price of salt – salt being her relationship with Therese.
I watched the movie shortly after finishing the book, and Cate Blanchett and Mara Rooney give stellar performances. The movie moves along at a faster clip than the book, and is far less restrained in its portrayal of the affair between the two women. It also does a wonderful job of transporting the audience to a different era. In some ways I felt that the movie was better than the book (how often does that happen?), but the book loyalist in me kept wanting to shout, “But that’s not how it happened in the book!” The movie deviates from the book to such an extent that I’m tempted to say that it’s only loosely based on the book. Worth the watch, though.