Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

First published in 1952 under the title ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol was Patricia Highsmith’s second book. It’s the source novel for Todd Haynes’ forthcoming film, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, the nineteen-year-old woman at the centre of Highsmith’s story. I’m desperate to see the film, so much so that I broke my current book-buying ban to get the book well in advance of early screenings at the LFF.

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Therese, a nineteen-year-old aspiring stage-set designer, lives on her own in a rented room in New York. Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, loves her and wants her to accompany him on his travels to Europe in the spring, but she is somewhat reluctant to commit. If truth be told, she doesn’t love him.

To make ends meet while she tries to get a foothold in the design business, Therese takes a temporary job as a sales assistant in a department store. It’s the run-up to Christmas, and she is rushed off her feet selling dolls to choosy parents and eager children. At times, Therese feels as if she has no real future to look forward to; stuck in a dead-end job, her desire to work in the theatre seems all but a distant dream. She is tired and lonely; her life seems uncertain, like ‘a series of zig-zags’.

One day, a tall, sophisticated woman in her early thirties comes into the store. The woman is Carol, and Therese is instantly attracted to her.

She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away. She heard the customer in front of her repeat a question, and Therese stood there, mute. The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here, and though there were a number of salesgirls between them, Therese felt sure the woman would come to her. Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment in had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer. (pgs. 35-36)

Carol buys a doll’s valise from Therese and arranges to have it delivered to her home. Once Carol has gone, Therese cannot stop thinking about her, so she decides to send her a Christmas card. The attraction is mutual. Carol invites Therese to lunch, and then to her home in the country where the electricity between the two women is palpable. When she returns to her own room, Therese’s thoughts are completely occupied by Carol.

But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant. She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves. (pg. 73)

At first, Therese is rather nervous around Carol, afraid of making a fool of herself in front of someone so seemingly self-assured. After a while she begins to open up a little, and we learn more of her backstory: how her kind and sympathetic father died when she was six; how her mother left her at a boarding school and rarely visited. The more she sees of Carol, the more Therese realises she is in love with this woman – the contrast with her feelings for Richard couldn’t be clearer.

And she thought suddenly of the times she had gone to bed with him, of her distance then compared to the closeness that was supposed to be, that everyone talked about. It hadn’t mattered to Richard then, she supposed, because of the physical fact they were in bed together. And it crossed her mind now, seeing Richard’s complete absorption in his reading, […] it occurred to her Richard’s attitude was that his place in her life was unassailable, her tie with him permanent and beyond question, because he was the first man she had ever slept with. Therese threw the match cover at the shelf, and a bottle of something fell over. (pgs. 110-111)

While she plainly enjoys Therese’s company, there are times when Carol seems somewhat distracted. She is going through a divorce from her husband, Harge, and the question of custody of their daughter, Rindy, is yet to be resolved. (Rindy is to live with Harge for the next three months, but the plan for long-term care remains open.) To take her mind off the divorce proceedings, Carol asks Therese to accompany her on a road trip across the US. Much to Richard’s dismay, Therese accepts. As far as Richard is concerned, Carol is simply playing with Therese – once she tires of the young girl she will kick her out. But Richard’s reaction only serves to show just how little he understands about Therese and emotions in general.

Kick me out, she thought. What was in or out? How did one kick out an emotion? She was angry, but she did not want to argue. She said nothing. (pg. 162)

Carol and Therese get to know each other better as they drive westward across the States visiting places such as Chicago, Waterloo and Colorado Springs. The scene in which they finally sleep together is very touching and beautifully rendered – for Therese it couldn’t feel more perfect. But while Carol is deeply attracted to Therese, she remains somewhat distant and prone to moments of melancholy.

Carol was happy only at moments here and there, moments that Therese caught and kept. One had been in the evening they put away the Christmas decorations, and Carol had refolded the string of angels and put them between the pages of a book. ‘I’m going to keep these,’ she had said. ‘With twenty-two angels to defend me, I can’t lose.’ Therese looked at Carol now, and though Carol was watching her, it was through that veil of preoccupation that Therese so often saw, that kept them a world apart. (pgs. 168-169)

In the midst of the road trip, it becomes clear that Harge has hired a private detective to follow Carol and Therese. Harge is aware of his wife’s fondness for women and intends to gather incriminating evidence to use against her in the forthcoming custody battle for their daughter, Rindy. That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot of this excellent novel, save to say this development prompts Carol to take action.

I really loved this book. It is beautiful, insightful and involving, one for my end-of-year highlights for sure. The central characters are so well drawn, and the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. Highsmith’s prose is rather beautiful, too. Take this early scene, for example, where Therese looks at Carol:

The lamp on the table made her eyes silvery, full of liquid light. Even the pearl at her earlobe looked alive, like a drop of water that a touch might destroy. (pg. 46)

Or this passage from their road trip:

But there were other days when they drove out into the mountains alone, taking any road they saw. Once they came upon a little town they liked and spent the night there, without pyjamas or toothbrushes, without a past or future, and the night became another of those islands in time, suspended somewhere in the heart or in the memory, intact and absolute. (pg. 227)   

Even though Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context.

Highsmith wrote the outline of this novel in 1948, a time when societal and cultural attitudes towards homosexuality were quite different to those existing today. Carol shines a light on the emotional impact of the pressure to conform to society’s expectations, raising questions about situations that were considered inappropriate or unacceptable at the time. The novel also broke the mould in that it was one of the first serious works of fiction featuring lesbians which did not end in suicide, despair or redemption in the form of a change of heart. Instead, the ending of Highsmith’s novel is rather more hopeful.

In her excellent afterword, the author explains how the story was inspired by her own experience of working on the doll counter of a Manhattan store during the Christmas rush. Therese, a young woman who decides to follow her desires and aspirations in life, is loosely based on Highsmith herself. You can read about it in this article from The Guardian, which also tells how the book was first published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan. (Please note, this piece does reveal a little more of the plot.)

Carol has also been reviewed by Bettina (of Books, Bikes, Food).

Carol is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy.

54 thoughts on “Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

  1. kimbofo

    I read this a few years ago and quite liked it. I have a soft spot for novels set in the 1950s and this one was hugely evocative of that era. I remember liking the fact that despite it being billed as a “lesbian novel” there was little romance, nor sex in it. Instead it was a very suspenseful account of the power play between two women. I think the film will be worth seeing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you liked it, Kim. Did you review it? I’ll take a look at your blog. Yes, I think the romance element is handled very well. Even though Carol is quite different to Highsmith’s other novels, I could see some connections with her favourite themes, desire and obsession in particular. Carol’s relationship with Abby is very intriguing too (and I haven’t even mentioned her in my review!).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite different to Highsmith’s Ripley novels (which I would also wholeheartedly recommend) but definitely worth considering. I think she’s an excellent writer.

      Reply
  2. lonesomereadereric

    Great review, and I especially appreciate how you put the novel in context of when it was first published and how it related to Highsmith’s life. The film is beautiful and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just as much, but in an entirely different way from the novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. The backstory is fascinating – I hadn’t realised it was inspired by Highsmith’s own personal experience until I read the afterword at the end of the novel. She wrote the story outline very quickly, right after her encounter with the woman in the department store. I wanted to reflect on the societal/cultural context at the time of the novel’s publication as well…things were so different back then, even though it was only sixty years ago.

      I can’t wait to see the film at the LFF next week. Delighted to hear you enjoyed it – I’m curious to see how Haynes has interpreted the source material! Have you seen Far from Heaven, also directed by Todd Haynes? Another beautiful film set in 1950s America. I guess Carol could be seen as a companion piece to his earlier film.

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I had no intention of seeing ‘Carol’ till I read this – just thought, “Oh another Blanchett vehicle” but I think I will now. The more I read about Highsmith herself the more interesting she is. Hope you’ll write a rv of the film soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve had my eye on this film ever since it premiered at Cannes in May as the ‘first-look’ reviews were excellent. I like Blanchett, but perhaps more importantly, I’m a Todd Haynes fan. I think he’s one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time. Have you seen Far from Heaven, with Julianne Moore in the lead role? It’s set in America in the 1950s, so I’m expecting something very similar from his adaptation of Carol. I don’t know if I’ll have time to write a review of the film – time is short and there are soooo many books in my write-up pile! If not, I’ll definitely report back in my comments here. I’m also looking forward to seeing Krisha next week, especially given your review from the Melbourne Film Fest.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        No, I haven’t seen Far from Heaven but will get hold of it. I was reminded too in your review of Notes from a Scandal with Blanchett and Judi Dench. Glad you’re seeing Krisha- will be interested in your reaction.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I hope you enjoy Far from Heaven – I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. Likewise, I’ll let you know how I get on with Krisha!

          That’s an interesting thought about Notes on a Scandal. It hadn’t occurred to me, but both novels deal with desire and obsession. It’s been a while since I read Zoe Heller’s novel, but I can see why this story came to mind. There’s a similar sense of ambiguity about the relationship between the two women as well, not to mention the Cate Blanchett connection with the film. Good call!

          Reply
        2. JacquiWine Post author

          Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Carol is absolutely sublime in every respect. There are a few differences in the storyline, but the film perfectly captures the mood and essence of the novel. Definitely worth catching when it opens in Melbourne.

          Reply
  4. crimeworm

    I got this in the Kindle sale (£1.99??) as I’m a bit of a Highsmith fan, especially the Ripleys. I had no idea about the film but I’ll maybe get the DVD or see it on Sky Box Office. Wonderful review, as ever, Jacqui – because of it I’m starting my copy asap, as soon as I finish one of the books I’m reading now! x

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Linda. Excellent news – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! The Ripleys are terrific, aren’t they? I started reading them years ago, just around the time of publication of one of the last books in the series. It’s hard to top the original, though – maybe I’ll reread it one day! Deep Water looks very tempting, too. Have you read that one? I’ve heard nothing but great things about it.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui and it sounds like this was really a pioneering book. I’m very tempted to track down a copy…. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I think it was a ground-breaking novel in its day. A huge commercial success, too – the paperback sold nearly one million copies on its release in the US. It’s somewhat different to Highsmith’s other novels, but I suspect you might enjoy this one!

      Reply
  6. Scott W

    Any news of a new Todd Haynes film is good news; I had no idea. I’d also never heard of the novel, but it sounds like a Highsmith I’d like to read. And this quotation from your review – “What was in or out? How did one kick out an emotion? She was angry, but she did not want to argue. She said nothing.” – struck me as such pure Haynes that I’m not surprised he latched onto the novel for material.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear you’re a Todd Haynes fan, Scott! Do you have a particular favourite? Far from Heaven is my fave, but I doubt whether I’ll ever forget the unsettling nature of Safe. Both of those films feature Julianne Moore in the lead role, so it’ll be interesting to see Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in this new one. Here’s an early review of the premiere at Cannes, if you’re interested:

      http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/16/carol-review-cate-blanchett-captivates-in-woozily-obsessive-lesbian-romance

      As for Highsmith’s novel, that quote really stood out for me – as soon as I read it I knew I had to use it!

      Reply
      1. Scott W

        I first watched Safe while visiting a fairly well-off couple who were about to go through a divorce and were developing all kinds of neuroses as a result, and the tension in that room while watching the film was thick enough to choke a mastodon. So that one still holds a rather special place for me – a real horror movie. I liked Far From Heaven a lot, but thought that any award for the most pitch-perfect Douglas Sirk element was deserved by Elmer Bernstein for his amazing score (his last).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, my…I can only begin to imagine how uncomfortable that must have been. Oddly enough, I watched Safe again fairly recently, and it’s just as terrifying now as it was back in the mid nineties. There’s a terrible sense of alienation about the lead character’s situation, and the final scene in the retreat is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not surprised to hear that it has stayed with you.

          As for Far from Heaven, yes, Bernstein’s score is wonderful – the perfect accompaniment to every scene. I’m hoping to find time to revisit the film this weekend, just to continue the Haynes theme.

          Reply
  7. Naomi

    I have yet to read any of her books. You make this sound so good (as usualy), and the movie looks good, too. Also, interesting article about Highsmith – thanks for the link!
    If you were to recommend one of her books, which would it be?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. You’re very welcome. Glad you enjoyed the article about Highsmith as well. As Gert was saying in her comments above, the more one reads about her, the more interesting she sounds. I found the story of her inspiration for Carol and the background to the novel’s publication equally fascinating.

      Where to start with Highsmith? Well, The Talented Mr. Ripley is absolutely brilliant – a gripping portrayal of one of the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. Or if Ripley’s not your thing, then I would suggest this one – Carol / The Price of Salt. It’s somewhat different to Highsmith’s other books, but the prose is just as good.

      Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    Though there is still terrible discrimination out there, times have indeed changed.

    Like a lot of people who think for themselves, it sounds like Patricia Highsmith was very ahead of her time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Things have changed, but you’re right to highlight the fact that discrimination still occurs. It saddens me to think of it in this day and age…

      I think this novel was a bit of a trailblazer in its day. I don’t want to say too much about the close, but Highsmith went against the grain by avoiding one of the more conventional/traditional endings for novels featuring lesbian protagonists. I’m sure that was a conscious decision on her part. Word-of-mouth was a big factor in driving the novel’s commercial success, so it must have been a huge step forward at the time.

      Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Ha, finally a book I’ve read, not a new edition to the TBR list! I read this a few years ago with my mom when she was going through a PH phase. We both enjoyed it very much, and I think your review captures it well. I hope you like the movie; Cate Blanchett seems like a fitting choice to me (though I’m far from being any kind of move expert).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Woo-hoo – I’m rather glad I’m not adding to your TBR for once! Great to hear that you and your mom enjoyed the book as well. I’m really looking forward to catching the film. Even though I’ve yet to see the full thing, I couldn’t read the novel without seeing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in my mind! For me, they seem to represent the characters perfectly.

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    I love the first Ripley novel, and quite like the others. One of the key issues for me with the subsequent ones in fact was that in the first it’s quite clear that Ripley is gay, whereas in the sequels he isn’t (and is also vastly more competent).

    This I hadn’t heard of, but it sounds very good. Is it still some form of crime novel, at least in tone, or is it more just a novel about some people? Or is that perhaps too hard to answer without saying too much about it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good point about the Ripley novels. I enjoyed the first three, in particular, but my memory of the fourth is a little fuzzy. That said, but it’s hard to beat the original, partly because the character is so fresh, and you’re still getting to know him.

      ***********Possible spoilers***********

      As for your question, I’d love to answer it, but it is little difficult to say too much without revealing certain aspects of the ending (or certainly the direction of the closing stages). One thing I can say is that your question is right on the money. As the road trip gets underway, it isn’t immediately obvious where the narrative is heading. Will Highsmith push it in the direction of some kind of dramatic incident or crime? Will it stay focused on Carol and Therese’s relationship? Or will it head off somewhere else entirely? It could go down any one of these routes, and this uncertainty creates a certain level of suspense – it definitely adds to the tension. I don’t think I should say anything else here as it would spoil one of the best elements of the novel. (If you want to know more, email me or DM me on Twitter.)

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I almost bought this recently but, as I’ve never read Highsmith and knew this wasn’t typical, thought I should perhaps start somewhere else. I didn’t know there was a film coming which I’m now very much looking forward to!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The trailer for Carol looks amazing, so I’m rather excited by the prospect of seeing the film next week! Have you decided where to start with Highsmith? (Hint, hint: The Talented Mr. Ripley is essential, and I’m sure you would enjoy it!)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. Yes, very interesting for its day. Highsmith wrote the outline for this story in 1948 while she was waiting for Strangers on a Train to be published. The full novel came a few years later (after the publication of Strangers). Quite a brave choice for her second novel, especially considering attitudes towards homosexuality at the time.

      Reply
  12. BookerTalk

    Ive never read Highsmith but was sufficiently intrigued by this to go looking on Amazon. Astoundingly it seems I can buy a used 2015 paper back version for the low cost of £1,091. I thought there must be something special about this edition but no. Maybe i’ll just get it from the library…….

    Reply
  13. madamebibilophile

    Great review! I’ve only recently started reading Highsmith, and I’ve not heard of this at all. The quotes you selected are beautiful. This will definitely be my next Highsmith read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I love the way this novel is written. Highsmith’s prose is rather beautiful, and it suits the story perfectly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Reply
  14. poppypeacockpens

    Ooò had this on my radar for a while – great review as always Jacqui & like others especially like (and appreciate) how you draw attention to Highsmith’s own experience & the context of when it was originally published. Fab! Will be ordering it today as like you want to read it before seeing the film☺

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you – excellent news! I think you’ll enjoy this one very much, Poppy. The background is fascinating – it really puts the novel into context. The trailer for the film looks absolutely wonderful, too – I can’t wait to see it.

      Reply
  15. Guy Savage

    I’m also waiting for the film (to DVD in my case). I was disappointed in the film version of the Two faces of January but I found the book problematic too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read Two Faces, but I enjoyed the film (especially the period detail and Oscar Isaac’s performance). Do you think you’ll read Carol? I’d be very interested to see your take on it.

      Reply
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  18. Bellezza

    I have so enjoyed Patricia Highsmith’s writing, even buying the three Mr. Ripley novels when I saw them in a collection over the summer. (Who knew there were three? I just thought there was The Talented Mr. Ripley.) Still, I have not known about this book so I’m glad you wrote about it. It seems that no one can quite touch the quality of these “old time” women: Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson. At least, I can’t think of one to compare.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I loved this one, Bellezza. On the surface, it’s quite different to Highsmith’s Ripley novels, but underneath it all you can tell it the same writer. Similar themes emerge, and there’s an undercurrent of desire and obsession running through the story.

      I agree, these old-school women writers are hard to beat – I guess that’s why they remain widely read today. :)

      Reply
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  21. Michelle Tiffany Menchavez

    Oh Thank you for making an effort to review this beautiful film adaptation, I actually did watch the movie already and I wanted to know more about and read the book, but unfortunately it wasn’t available in my country.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. The film is sublime, isn’t it? Sheer perfection in every sense. I hope you get a chance to read the book at some point – perhaps the movie adaptation will lead to a wider release for the novel?

      Reply

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