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.
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.