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The Price of Salt (or "Carol") by Patricia Highsmith: The most progressive lesbian novel of its time and before

All right. Gonna sit down and talk about The Price of Salt, also known as Carol, by Patricia Highsmith.




Why is this book relevant to you AT ALL? Well, the movie version's about to be released, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, so if you like those ladies, you might want to read this beforehand.

SO. Book. What are you.

There is a girl. Named Therese. The year is 1953 (or thereabouts), and she starts out the book working in the doll section of a department store. She's 21, trying to get work as a set designer in the theatre, and is thoroughly depressed by her job. Mainly because she sees herself being ruled by The Man and his Corporation. It doesn't help that her co-workers have been there for years and seem ideal candidates for a Karl Marx diatribe on capitalism quashing the Human Spirit. 

So you know something's going to change for her, because 1) This is a pretty famous lesbian novel, and none of her co-workers seem like good pair-ups for her, and 2) She really doesn't want to end up like said co-workers. MOTIVATION.

The beginning made me a bit nervous, as I very much do not like depressing novels. Or novels where someone is in a depressing situation and the author is trying to Show Something by never ever getting her out of it (lookin' at you, Sinclair Lewis's Main Street). BUT, I soldiered on, because I knew something about this book, and that something is the reason I picked it up.

SLIGHT spoiler, I guess, but it's the one I had going in and you don't know how it's going to happen; you just know it's going to happen: this...is a lesbian novel that ends happily. 




"WHAT?" you thunder. Yes, I know. Or you would thunder if you were aware of the ending of every other LGBT novel that was ever published before this one ever. Gay characters had to be punished, and that was the end of that. Except Patricia Highsmith said fuck that shit. Again, IN THE EARLY 1950s. Here's her in the afterword:


Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.



Ok, so Therese is working at this doll counter, and then one day she sees this beautiful, well-dressed lady walking towards her, and she immediately turns into a panicking creeper, like most of us would if approached by a super-hot rich person (...or maybe that's just me).

Beautiful, Well-Dressed Woman (Carol) wants a doll, so Therese finds one for her, which Carol when wants shipped, so Therese has her address. FURTHERING THE CREEPER IMAGE, she writes her a card, only Carol is somehow really into this, and they go out to lunch together.

Then Therese starts going over to Carol's house all the time. Which is weird, but ok. And Carol seems like an okay person, but distant, and fairly condescending, and it just makes you feel kind of awkward and like "Thereeeeese, I don't want you to get huuurt," because the book's all Third Person Limited narration, so you identify with Therese and not so much with Carol, and when Therese buys Carol an expensive handbag and Carol's later like "You didn't have the money for this; you shouldn't have bought it," you CRINGE.


They end up going on a road trip from New York, and cover a lot of the country, and it's totally great and something we should all do. Then really stressful, bastardy 1950s things happen, BUT THEN the last 20 pages. Oh, the last 20 pages. They make this book. 

The cover says it inspired Lolita, which I assume is because older person/younger person and a lengthy American roadtrip. Only with no pedophilia! What a bonus.

There's a fantastic big long quote in it, but people don't read big long quotes, even if they're fantastic, so here's the tail end of it, which sums things up nicely (1950s Highsmith, I want to hug you):

But the most important point I did not mention and was not thought of by anyone—that the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman, and perhaps some people want just this, as others want that more shifting and uncertain thing that happens between men and women.

Yes. This. 

It's well-written and thought-provoking and ahead of its time and all that jazz. Hurrah.

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