The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
I’m not going to lie to you; the brilliance of this book is shrouded in the author’s own pessimism of the topic: Love. She approaches the topic lightly. For an author that wrote primarily about psychopaths and murder in such an unflinching and unsettling way, this novel seems out of place, but it truly represents her writing style and showcases it for the reader who might be distracted by the grimness of her more sinister plots. In this novel the crime is love and the pursuit of love, and the act of sustaining love.
The story surrounds a 19 year old aspiring set designer, Therese, in New York who meets an attractive and older suburbanite woman, Carol, while she is working the counter of a department store during Christmas to make ends meet. Carol is going through a lengthy divorce with her husband Harge. Therese is struggling to establish herself as an apprentice set designer. Therese is dating, but having a hard time connecting with anyone. She meets Carol and is instantly and intensely enchanted by her. So enchanted that Therese finds a way to see Carol again. She later finds that Carol shares her feelings, but two people falling in love is only a beginning in this story and not some happy ending. There is a figurative and literal journey between them.
“How was it possible to be afraid and in love… The two things did not go together. How was it possible to be afraid, when the two of them grew stronger together every day? And every night. Every night was different, and every morning. Together they possessed a miracle.”
–The Price of Salt
This book reads beautifully. Said to have inspired the book Lolita and the movie Thelma and Louise, it has often been revered as a Lesbian Pulp classic…but this is not strictly Pulp. The subject matter involved things that were risqué of the time and maybe even now (age difference in the couple at the center, infidelity, sex between two women), but there is hardly anything truly “pulpy” about this novel. It doesn’t fit the formula for a lesbian pulp either: the formula that dictated that no character could be happy, sane, alive and gay.
To call it Lesbian novel or coming out story isn’t entirely sufficient or accurate either. It is a drama and love story set in Highsmith Country and there is not a lot of love in Highsmith Country, especially not of the happy or requited sort. After writing the book, under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, Patricia Highsmith was ever after uncomfortable that she had even written it. As Joan Schenkar said of Highsmith and the novel, “Pat, who died for love a thousand times in life, killed for it in every novel except this one.”
Patricia Highsmith was and is still an incomprehensible figure and perhaps that is what contributed to her remarkability. She was charming and hateful. Liberal and conservative. A lesbian and woman-hater. Some believe, in retrospect, she had undiagnosed aspergers syndrome. Whatever the case, she was a contradiction throughout her life as many of us can be. It is hard to tell which eccentricities hindered her from being an even more prominent author and which lent to Patricia Highsmith’s indelible work; Stranger’s on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and of course The Price of Salt, but her peculiarity is the blood and bone of the books.
Highsmith’s voice is one that has a singular allure. An allure that has made many a director, including Alfred Hitchcock, yearn to put her words and odd characters on screen. There is a sort of revival of her work going on now for whatever reason. I’m glad of it. The Price of Salt has been dusted off and the movie is in post-production now.
One of my favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett, is taking the role of Carol Aird, and she is Carol as far as I’m concerned; perfect fit. I have admired Blanchett’s ability to really own any role and I expect nothing less than truly great work from her on this. Rooney Mara, I think, will be the embodiment of Therese Belivet. (I still have a bone to pick with her about Lisbeth Salander though…I preferred Noomi Rapace in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol’s best friend, is probably spot on for the minor role, yet major impact she has on the story. Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird, Carol’s husband, is brilliant. Looking forward to it.