‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith ***

I have read rather a few of Patricia Highsmith’s books to date, beginning with her rather fabulous The Talented Mr Ripley series, and moving to her standalone crime novels more recently.  Whilst Carol, first published under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt upon its 1952 publication, has been on my radar for a long while, it was a recommendation from one of my favourite London bookshops, Gay’s the Word, which pushed me to pick it up.

9781408808979Carol felt, on the face of it, like a real step away from what I am used to with Highsmith’s work.  Graham Greene draws parallels between Carol and Highsmith’s more genre-based crime writing, however, stating that the author ‘created a world of her own, claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.’  Val McDermid, who wrote the introduction to the Bloomsbury edition which I read, agrees, writing that Carol ‘has the drive of a thriller but the imagery of a romance.’  The Sunday Times continues this theme, noting that the novel is ‘very recognizably Highsmith, full of tremor and of threat and of her peculiar genius for anxiety.’

The novel’s protagonist is Therese Belivet, a nineteen-year-old woman working as a sales assistant in a New York department store during the busy Christmas rush.  This store, Frankenberg’s, was ‘organized so much like a prison, it frightened her [Therese] now and then to realize she was a part of it.’  She is in the toy department one morning when a ‘beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter.  Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for her first shock of love.’   The woman is Carol Aird, a ‘sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter.’  McDermid writes of their meeting: ‘There’s an instant spark of attraction between them but neither knows quite how to react.  They’re drawn to each other, trying for friendship, but unable to resist the deeper attraction.  Their flirtation with danger and desire makes for almost unbearable tension.’  Indeed, many of the scenes which ensue, particularly in the second part of the novel, feel close and claustrophobic.

At the moment in time that she meets Carol, Therese is engaged to a relatively sensible young man with prospects, and a wealthy family behind him.  He pales into comparison for Therese with the rather volatile Carol, whom Highsmith describes in the following manner when the women first meet: ‘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 woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here…  Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer.’

As previously mentioned, Carol was published under a pseudonym as, despite Highsmith’s authorial success, ‘her mainstream publishers Harper didn’t want to because it dealt explicitly with a lesbian relationship’ (McDermid).  The novel went on to sell over a million copies in the United States alone when the paperback version of The Price of Salt was released in 1953.  This success, writes McDermid, ‘didn’t happen by accident.  When Carol appeared, it didn’t so much full a niche as a gaping void.  Back then, the only images of lesbians in literature were as miserable inverts or scandalous denizens of titillating pop fiction.’  The novel, somewhat surprisingly, was not published under Highsmith’s name until 1991.

Highsmith captures emotion and sensation deftly.  On the first meeting between the women outside the confines of the department store, for instance, Therese ‘wanted to thrust the table aside and spring into her arms, to bury her nose in the green and gold scarf that was tied close about her neck.  Once the backs of their hands brushed on the table, and Therese’s skin there felt separately alive now, and rather burning.  Therese could not understand it, but it was so.’  Highsmith writes of Therese’s innocence, and her sexual awakening, with such understanding.  Her prose is, as usual, quite matter-of-fact, but there was some great writing included.  I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of New York, and the attention to detail which she paid to clothing.

Whilst I found the premise of Carol highly intriguing, I do not feel as though my interest in the story was sustained throughout.  The first part of the novel contained some comparatively dull scenes, which contained snatches of oddly stilted conversations, and where the characters felt a little inconsistent.  The second half certainly picked up though, and the tension in this part of the book was heightened considerably.  Indeed, this second part had a better pace to it, and took twists and turns which I was not expecting.  I must admit that I did not really like any of the characters in Carol; the protagonists were too self-absorbed and largely uncaring, and some of the secondary characters felt more like caricatures than realistic beings.  Regardless, Carol is, of course, well worth a read; it is undeniably a pivotal piece of LGBT literature.

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2 thoughts on “‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith ***

  1. I posted on this briefly a couple of years ago; ‘polished and accomplished’, V McD calls it in her introduction, and I tend to agree. The slimy PI who tails the couple on their road trip is straight out of her crime thriller mode.

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