Despite scouring the bookshelves for something to read after Tipping the Velvet and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit it has taken me this long to read this lesbian pulp fiction classic simply because before the posters of the film adaptation appeared all over London I had no idea it existed.
Carol or The Price of Salt as it used to be named is unusual especially for its time due to the fact in contrast to other Queer classics it does not have a tragic ending. Highsmith finished it after her bestseller Strangers on a Train and was driven to publish it under a pseudonym where it sold more than a million copies. The post-war novel centres around 19 year old Therese Belevit, a set designer who pays the bills by working in a department store. One day a married woman comes into the store to buy a doll for her daughter and the attraction between them is instant.
The first meeting is electric. Breathtaking. It’s one of those moments where even if I didn’t already know that the author based it on a real incident I would have guessed. I read it twice over and grew tense and hot just like Therese did. What is so especially poignant about this first ache of attraction is that the protagonist doesn’t acknowledge or even know what it is.
Highsmith’s mastery of the thriller genre is obvious even in a love story. The book is infused with anxiety mostly due to the taboo subject matter but this makes the small domestic moments between Therese and Carol even more sweet. The 50s era illustrated in this book is dark and seedy and delicious with New York shown through elegant scenes of delicatessens and coffee shops. The characters themselves also represent the repressed sexual tension of the era with the characters showing their desire in small yet intense actions.
She got something out of her handbag, a lipstick and compact, and Therese looked at her lipstick case – golden like a jewel, and shaped like a sea chest. She wanted to look at the women’s mouth, but the grey eyes so close drove her away, flickering over her like fire.
The impression I got first was that Carol is purposely cruel but the conflict in her character becomes more apparent when we realise how much she has to lose compared to Therese whose attitude towards her fiancé borders on the apathetic. Carol’s husband looms in the background as an overbearing figure. He has hardly any scenes but his influence is there even when he is not.
Why is it some lesbian novels disappoint you so because they’re full of women you wouldn’t fall in love with? This had me smitten from the first meeting maybe because I seem to share Therese’s taste in women. I felt protective of her and completely empathised with her too. Highsmith perfectly illustrates that emotion where you feel so much and so intensely that you can hardly speak. Their conversation is stilted and awkward but the attraction burns and its portrayed here better than I’ve seen it written before.