‘Carol’, original name ‘The Price of Salt’, by Patricia Highsmith (1952) – 292 pages
‘Carol’ actually is the story of Therese Belivet, a 19 year old young woman who has taken a pre-Christmas job working at the toy counter in a department store but who is most interested in designing sets for theatrical productions. Therese has a boyfriend named Richard who loves her, but she gives him practically nothing in the way of affection. She waits in dread for the nights he will ask her to stay with him, and she usually manages a plausible excuse to turn him down.
One day at the department store, a wealthy suburban wife and mother named Carol comes in to buy a doll. Therese waits on her, and the sparks fly at once between them. The attraction on both sides is intense like nothing Therese has experienced before. Soon Carol invites Therese out for drinks, and Therese eagerly accepts.
The word that best describes ‘Carol’ for me is ‘verisimilitude’. In other words, the story here has the quality of seeming real. Individuals probably do not have much control over the ones to which they are attracted or not attracted. ‘Carol’ captures that overwhelming passion that can occur between two people, in this case the two women.
“With a thousand memories and moments, words, the first darling, the second time Carol had met her at the store, a thousand memories of Carol’s face, her voice, moments of anger and laughter flashed like the tail of a comet across her brain… And she did not have to ask if this was right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.”
Patricia Highsmith, originally from Texas, wrote this novel soon after her first novel ‘Strangers on a Train’ achieved great success due to the movie Alfred Hitchcock made based on it. For ‘The Price of Salt’, Highsmith used a pseudonym, and it developed a cult following as a lesbian novel. Now, over sixty years later, it has been made into an Oscar-contending movie, ‘Carol’, by Todd Haynes starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Later in her writing career Patricia Highsmith, who never married, would write five psychological thrillers with Tom Ripley as the main character.
Much of the novel is taken up with a road trip by Therese and Carol across the United States, but don’t expect much of scenery or local color as this is mainly a psychological novel of the heated attraction between these two. There are a few scenes that take place on the road in the car, but otherwise we hardly ever leave the hotel. At a few points in the novel the singular intensity of their relationship was not quite enough to sustain my interest.
I can see how ‘Carol’ would work well as a screenplay with the movie cameras providing the outside visuals that are missing from this novel of obsessive love.