It is possible that my reading of ‘Carol’ was coloured by my previous enjoyment of Patricia Highsmith’s darkly comic crime thrillers, especially ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’ (reviewed here). I actually hadn’t heard of her second and far more obscure novel, until it received much welcome publicity following a lauded film adaptation last year. Dealing with romance rather than sociopathic murderers, the plot sounded at first as if it would provide an unexpected new dimension to my view of Highsmith’s writing. As I should have expected however, the book I read contained all of the tension, secrecy and obsession I associate with its author; it’s left me feeling like I know Highsmith’s style so much better, not because of the changes I found, but because ‘Carol’ is a Highsmith novel through and through.
The story begins with the fiercely independent Therese working as a bored seasonal sales assistant in a New York department store. Therese is artistic and ambitious, but she is also generally content to let life pass her by, especially in her relationship with Richard, a boyfriend toward whom she is coolly indifferent. Her lack of interest in this romance is thrown into stark relief when Therese meets Carol. Carol is older, richer and more experienced; she has a husband rather than a boyfriend to ignore and hide from and, while materially better off than Therese, we soon learn that she also has more to lose. I can’t imagine what readers in the 1950s may have expected on picking up ‘The Price of Salt’ (the original title), the very slow build up and revelation of the feelings these two women have for each other is so gradual and yet so inexorable I can picture readers becoming enthralled in the relationship before they even realised quite what the relationship was.
Nowadays we have the help (or hinderance) of the famous author’s name prominently displayed on the cover. ‘The Price of Salt’ was published pseudonymously so I assume original readers were less jumpy than I was on realising that Carol seems to carry a gun far more than I would consider necessary. They also wouldn’t have the same frisson of fear and anticipation as the protagonists go on a protracted and seemingly destination-less road-trip (another Highsmith trope, she excels at aimless yet threateningly claustrophobic journeys). The simple fact is I have never read a romantic love story that rode so close to the edge of crime thriller territory. The overall impression is that Therese and Carol are almost as threatening to their society as the murderers who abound in Highsmith’s other novels. Wonderfully, they also share with such characters a determination to live their own lives in quiet rebellion against the feeble, false constraints imposed by others. In the crime books this trait is hypothetical, in ‘Carol’ it is significant and very powerful.
If you’re a Highsmith fan, you must read this novel. It not only contains many of her most successful tropes, but the anti-social characters themselves, with their fixations and passions, are as compelling as any of her male protagonists. If you’ve never got round to reading her novels, then this is a terrific place to start. There is romance, yes, but there is also so much more. ‘Carol’ is as existentially profound and as absorbing a psychological thriller as any Ripley novel; it’s also a quiet classic of lesbian fiction, just waiting to be rediscovered by a whole new audience.