|Jan/Feb 2016 Reviews & Interviews|
Bloomsbury. 2015. 311 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6567 5.
It is surprising a book written by Patricia Highsmith in 1948 and rejected by her publishers, Harper & Bros., should suddenly emerge as a major film success in 2015. It is surprising, too, that it was inspired by her employment as a salesgirl and a bout of chickenpox, both experienced by Highsmith when, as an impoverished writer, she took a temporary Christmas job on a toy counter in a Manhattan department store.
Like young Therese in this novel, Highsmith was dizzily impressed by a rich, distracted blonde customer in a mink coat. Unlike Therese, Highsmith's dizzy response was caused by early symptoms of chickenpox caught from other customers' children, not by sudden, heart-racing symptoms of love.
In Carol, Highsmith explores the results of this chance encounter between Therese, a 19-year-old apprentice stage-set designer getting by on casual jobs while looking for theater work, and Carol Aird, the beautiful, wealthy older woman, whose divorce from her cold and controlling husband, Harge, is still in the hands of his lawyers. Custody of their small daughter has yet to be finalized.
Therese's boyfriend Richard loves her, wants to marry her, and plans to take her on a trip to Europe, but she is not sure she loves him enough to marry him. Nevertheless, she meets him often; she has slept with him three times but not found it satisfying; and she is accepted by his family, who like her and anticipate the marriage.
Therese is confused by her sudden infatuation with Carol, who encourages it but remains somewhat distant and unknowable. She meets Carol as often as she can but is still involved with Richard and his two friends, both of whom are attracted to Therese. She, too, is drawn to one of them. She meets Carol's friend Abby and notes with envy how close they are and how at ease they are in their friendship. But her own meetings with Abby alone are tense and uncomfortable. Highsmith conveys well the confusing and disturbing emotions of jealousy and superstition.
When Carol invites Therese to go on a trip with her for three weeks or so, offering to pay all expenses, Therese is excited but also defensive. She does not want Carol's money and refuses to take the cheque Carol wants to give her. Eventually, however, she cancels her agreement to go to Europe with Richard, and in a break between the theater jobs she has managed to get, she agrees to the trip with Carol.
All goes well, and their relationship develops into a full love affair, to the delight of both. But halfway through the trip, they discover Harge has hired a detective to spy on them.
Highsmith is an excellent storyteller. Therese's life, her thoughts and emotions, are just part of a bigger picture of the life of a young, ambitious woman in 1948 America. The attitudes towards marriage and sexual relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, are those of that time. But the argument expressed at one point by Highsmith's character, Carol, is still relevant today. Facing the loss of her child due to prevailing laws and social prejudices, she argues for understanding and tolerance of the choices people make in relationships.
Highsmith herself, in 1948, learned some subjects were deemed unacceptable by some publishers. She also learned, as she wrote in her Afterword to this book, there was a large readership, male and female, for such novels, especially if, as in her book, same-sex lovers do not end up "cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool," "switching to heterosexuality," or "collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell." After changing publishers, this book was published in 1952 as The Price of Salt and sold nearly a million paperback copies. And Highsmith's mailbox was filled with letters of appreciation and thanks.