Note: This is a review of the novel, written by Patricia Highsmith, not the upcoming film with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
This was a novel that Patricia Highsmith had written right after her debut, Strangers on A Train, that was turned into a widely successful film by Alfred Hitchcock, yet when she turned in the manuscript for The Price of Salt into her publisher, Harper & Bros (HarperCollins now), rejected the novel, outright. One can assume, it was because of the lesbian content. She published it at a smaller publishing house that eventually gave it a pulpy-looking paperback release with the tagline: the novel of a love society forbids, along with a pseudonym, Claire Morgan.
It follows a formula that a lot of pulp lesbian novels followed in the fifties, novels usually geared toward men. A young woman is tempted by an older woman until the young woman finds “a real man” who guides her down the right path, yet The Price of Salt (or Carol) turns this idea on it’s head. Yes, the lead character Therese, the one who’s eyes we view this story through, is much younger than the object of her affection, Carol Aird, a mysterious woman in a fur coat who wanders through a department store that Therese happens to be working at, and asks her to see a bag. From Therese’s view, their attraction is immediate. So much so, that Therese, on a whim, sends Carol a Christmas card from work with the address Carol provided for a couple of purchases. Carol calls up the store and invites Therese out to spend some time with her and the two bond over a sense of loneliness each other has, and something else beneath the surface that neither speaks of. Almost as if they’re afraid to speak it, in fear of what the reaction of the other would be.
As their relationship begins to blossom and grow, Therese’s boyfriend Richard begins to notice a change in Therese and even teases her about her ‘schoolgirl crush’ that she has on Carol, and the few times that Therese has met Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband Harge, he’s been distrustful of her but that doesn’t deter Therese, who’s every waking thought and moment seems to be filled with thoughts of Carol, the smell of her, what to do for her, wondering when the next moment she will be in the room with her.
As divorce proceedings begin to proceed, Carol decides that she wants to go west with Therese, and Therese agrees. The two travel west and eventually the barriers that seem to separate the two come down and they confess the feelings that they feel for one another in a way that they never have before.
What ultimately grounds the novel is the delicate, yet simple language that Highsmith uses, and the authenticity with which she writes about the experience of falling in love, so much so, that you find yourself falling for Carol along with Therese, yet also afraid of what that might mean for them, considering the time and place they’re in.
It’s so strange to go back to this place in time when homosexuality was considered an affliction, a disease, something that could cost you your family in legal cases, and at it’s worst, get you thrown into mental hospitals and be subjected to the cruelest of treatments imaginable. It’s strange to me that there was such a time that The Price of Salt even existed, where people thought such a way, but then you hear about out-of-touch politicians and the people that follow them, and you’re reminded that there are people who still live in that backward mindset, who can’t imagine a life outside of their own narrow worldview.
It’s then that you realize that the fight for equality for everyone doesn’t end at a Supreme Court ruling, it ends when we learn how to respect one another and the things that make us different.