Patricia Highsmith, Carol

Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Bloomsbury pb, 2014. First published in the USA as The Price of Salt in 1952

Squeezing this last post in this month before I go on my travels, so there’ll be a hiatus here at TD for a while.

I’ve not read Patricia Highsmith before, but had read some very positive reviews of her psychological thrillers, and have seen films like Strangers on a Train (directed by Hitchcock in 1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley. Carol is very different.

The author explains in an Afterword that the inspiration for the novel came in 1948, soon after she’d finished Strangers, and was living in New York. Being short of cash she took a temporary job in a department store as a sales assistant in the toy department. Like Therese in the novel, she was assigned to the doll section:

One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.

Patricia Highsmith, CarolShe went home and wrote up an 8-page story outline in her notebook. This was one of those germs of an idea that Henry James has written about; they simmer in the author’s mind for a while and then emerge as works of fiction.

Here’s how the scene plays out in the novel:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. 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.

The 19-year-old Therese, an aspiring stage set designer, has had a coup de foudre. What follows is a compelling account of a passion that turns out to be mutual, but beset by the hostility and prejudice against lesbian relationships that were prevalent at the time – and still are, sadly, in some places.

Carol is a wealthy housewife in her thirties, married but soon to be divorced. Her husband uses the situation to ensure he is awarded custody of their little girl.

Therese and Carol go on a road trip out west. They are being followed by a detective hired by the husband. He’s as cynical and unsympathetic as the man who hired him, and the society that spawned them both. The cat and mouse pursuit and suspense that follows is heart-stopping and makes for a compelling read.

Carol was played beautifully by Cate Blanchett in the 2015 film (directed by Todd Haynes).

Not surprisingly, Highsmith published the novel in 1952 under an assumed name; her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it because of its lesbian theme. Big mistake: it sold over a million copies when it came out in paperback.

There’s an excellent introduction in this Bloomsbury edition, by Val McDermid. As she says, it’s ‘a polished and accomplished work’. I recommend it.


24 thoughts on “Patricia Highsmith, Carol

  1. I saw the film and throughly enjoyed it – must tackle the novel I’m sure there will be more to explore in it. You were right Cate Blanchett was brillant in the film

  2. “One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.”

    Simon, I would usually not paste something, but I think the mystery of Highsmith’s artistic “coup de foudre” here is a great example of what David Lodge once talked about when he mused on the creative process. I’m pasting it below, in brackets, then one more observation on Highsmith.

    [David Lodge (“Creative Writing: Can it/Should it be Taught” – from The Practice of Writing – David Lodge (Allen Lane – The Penguin Press (1996))

    “But it is not just a matter of technique either. It is like a chemical, or alchemical, reaction between form and content. So many factors are involved in the production of a literary text: the write’s life-experience, his genetic inheritance, his historical context, his reading, his powers of recall, his capacity for introspection, his fantasy life, his understanding of the springs of narrative, his responsiveness to language – its rhythms, sounds, registers, nuances of meaning, and so on….Even the most sophisticated literary criticism only scratches the surface of the mysterious process of creativity; and so, by the same token, does even the best course in creative writing.”]

    Finally, I always marveled at the warmth of “The Price of Salt,” compared to the coldness of Highsmith’s other novels, and her sad life story. Was it the times she lived in? Something in her own nature the led her towards her end as a recluse? Still pondering.

    • Maureen: I wasn’t expecting that warmth in the narrative- good word for it – and Lodge’s point is aptly chosen. Maybe Highsmith was writing from the heart, not the brain, as she maybe did in Ripley & the other more contrived stories? I’d need to read them. Thanks for the comment

  3. Some people have called Highsmith’s writing “cold.” But I think the quality I find strongest in her works is alienation. This is reflected in both her life and her writings. I have, so far, only read the first Ripley, but I have a boxed set and plan on working my way through.

    Have a wonderful holidays, Simon!

  4. Oh, she can be hilarious. One description I’ve heard of her is “slyly comic.” And, yes, she is totally merciless. A couple ideas

    Aspiring young writer Fleur Talbot gets a day job as secretary at the mysterious “Autobiographical Association” in post-war London The Association’s Director, Sir Quentin Oliver, steals Fleur’s novel manuscript and “fiction begins to appropriate life.”

    From Amazon – “In late 1950s London, something uncanny besets a group of elderly friends: an insinuating voice on the telephone reminds each: Remember you must die. Their geriatric feathers are soon thoroughly ruffled, and many an old unsavory secret is dusted off.”

    “Dame Muriel Spark’s tragic and rapier-witted portrait of a London ladies’ hostel just emerging from the shadow of World War II. Like the May of Teck Club itself―”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”―its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal….The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.”

    Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”

    Hope something suits, Simon and Paula!

  5. It sounds very good, though I may watch the film first (which I shouldn’t, I know). I liked her Strangers on a Train (I think there’s a review at mine) and loved The Talented Mr Ripley (but only liked its sequels).

    Re Spark, I’ve reviewed two at mine – A Far Cry from Kensington, which I really liked; and the almost universally acclaimed The Driver’s Seat, which I didn’t (hence the almost there). She’s definitely a cold writer, but a very skilled cold writer.

  6. Nice post. I cannot wait to read this one now. I have previously only read The Talented Mr Ripley, but I liked the movie Carol. It is such an injustice the movie did not receive a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.

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