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Patricia Highsmith: The Price of Salt, or Carol (1952)

priceofsaltAlthough I haven’t been posting much about books lately, I have been reading, and there have been some quite interesting finds, too. I’ll get around to writing about them at some point, because they deserve it. I’ve been in the mood for different things lately, and then somewhere I read about Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (sometimes published as Carol), and lightning struck. This book, I am fairly certain, will make my “favourite reads of 2015” list, unless the reading year suddenly picks up to become exceptionally stellar (and even then).

The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman living in New York without many strings attached. She wants to be a set designer and has a circle of artistic friends, among them Richard, who is adamantly in love with her and determined to make her love him back. She’s slept with him, but she’s not in love. To make a living, Therese works in a department store during the Christmas period. One day, a blonde woman buys a doll from her, and Therese is strangely attracted to her. She writes her a Christmas card and they start getting to know each other. The woman – Carol – is going through a divorce and has a little daughter.

Therese and Carol start seeing more and more of each other, much to the dismay of Richard, who starts seeing less of Therese as a result. Therese begins to realise she’s actually in love with Carol, she longs to spend time with her and is jealous of Carol’s old friend Abby. Likewise, Carol seems to enjoy spending time with Therese, but her intentions are less clear. Richard believes she’s taking advantage of Therese, but Therese keeps seeing her, they get closer, and eventually decide to go on a road trip together. And so, a beautiful love story between them begins to unfold.

But this is 1950s America, and Carol’s ex-husband wants custody of their daughter Rindy. He knows of Carol’s sexual orientation and sets a detective on the heels of the two women. Eventually, Carol has to return home to face the charges against her.

Despite these dark undertones and the sacrifices especially Carol has to make, this is a hugely optimistic novel. Patricia Highsmith originally published it under the pseudonym of “Claire Morgan”. In the afterword, she states that even years after the novel was published, she used to receive letters thanking her for writing a novel about a same-sex couple with an uplifting ending (apparently most of these stories at the time ended with at least one of the protagonists committing suicide, repenting, or losing everything).

Aside from that, I also very much liked the writing in The Price of Salt. It’s quite beautiful, and there are some very insightful and very current statements to be found.

For example, Therese has a conversation with Carol at some point that makes her reflect on the issue of hate:

It reminded her of a thousand conversations with Richard, Richard mingling war and big business and congressional witch hunts and finally certain people he knew into one grand enemy, whose only collective label was hate.

Could these lines not be written about one of today’s Internet trolls, liberally mingling politicians, journalists, and “the powers that be” into a big conspiracy theory? We sometimes talk about this phenomenon as if it were something new. It’s helpful to be reminded that perhaps it has merely changed shape and is now more obvious and possibly easier to spew vitriol against “the enemy”. Apparently people need the mirage of such a clear-cut enemy whom they can blame for everything that is wrong with the world, and the more complex the world becomes, the greater this need.

In fact, the realisation that such an enemy is in reality hard to identify profoundly shakes Therese:

An inarticulate anxiety, a desire to know, know anything, for certain, had jammed itself in her throat so for a moment she felt she could hardly breathe.

Who doesn’t know this feeling, the almost paralysing anxiety that sometimes overcomes you when you consider certain complexities and uncertainties surrounding the future and your life?

Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.

It’s easy to imagine, of course, that if you’ve just discovered you’re in love with a person of the same sex, something even more frowned upon at the time than today, this feeling of shifting ground can really grip you. But then there are the love scenes. Tender and erotic, they’re beautiful and striking. I won’t put any of them here, because I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Read this book. It’s beautiful.

It also made me consider, once more, how far we’ve come on the one hand, and how stuck we still are in old ways on the other. This year, “only” 63 years after the publication of The Price of Salt, same-sex marriage was legalised in the US. Considering that non-heterosexual relationships have been stigmatised for so long, the speed at which things have evolved is breathtaking. BUT. BUT. Homophobia and prejudices against people who identify anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum are still everywhere. Same-sex marriage is still not legal even in many Western countries (Germany, I’m looking at you).* This stings, and it also stinks, to high heaven. Books like The Price of Salt should be required reading in our secondary schools, where LGBTQ-phobia is often particularly rampant and can make the lives of LGBTQ kids a living hell. But as long as we have bigot parents around who would rather “protect” their children from anything even remotely resembling a graphic sex scene than raise sexually secure and empowered human beings, there’s a fat chance of that happening. The fact that The Price of Salt was written in 1952 and we’re still this far away from acceptance is shameful.

At the danger of repeating myself, read this book.

*Say what you will against the enshrining of privileges in an outdated institution such as marriage (you’d be right), but the fact that this institution is slowly opening itself up to other forms of relationships is, in my view, a step towards greater acceptance and thus, progress.

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