Carol (originally titled “The Price of Salt”) by Patricia Highsmith

51sEw0dZe0L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_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.

41a741f1eb8b5973bb12988b790917c7I 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.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Continuing my quest for quality smut . . .

Set in late nineteenth-century England, we are introduced to young Nancy Astley, narrator of this story, who lives with and is well-loved by her working-class family who run an oyster shop in Whitstable.  One fateful evening, Nancy attends a show at a local music hall where she lays eyes for the first time on Kitty Butler, a masher upon the stage – and Nancy is forever changed.  She becomes entranced by Kitty, and a friendship of sorts blossoms between the two, and it’s not long before Nancy leaves her family to seek her fortune, along with Kitty, in London.  The two become secret lovers and a huge success together on the stage of theaters and music halls throughout London – until Kitty breaks Nancy’s heart.  This is only the beginning, however, of Nancy’s adventures, both sexual and otherwise, which range from tender to violent – at times nearly tragic, and often bawdy and hilarious.  More story than sex, the sex scenes are, however, very ribald and graphic – and yes, many of them are lesbian scenes, for this is a story of lesbianism.  Don’t go getting all squeamish – anyone who is a fan of a good story, regardless of sexual orientation, will appreciate this book.

What I also loved about this book, aside from the stellar story-telling, is the fact that it’s smutty without being to the detriment of anyone’s person.  Not that Nancy doesn’t stumble along the way, or is never victimized, but for the most part, she takes her fate into her own hands and owns it.

Filled with wonderfully developed, colorful characters and well-described scenes and settings, I was transported when reading this to a different time and place – I could see the colors and smell the aromas and hear the people.  In the end, this is a love story – and let me just say that I’m usually too much a cynic to appreciate love stories, but this one left a tear in my eye.  I was sorry to read the last sentence of the book and will miss the characters now.  Sarah Waters is a gifted story-teller, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some more of her work.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, “tipping the velvet” is Victorian slang for cunnilingus 😉