BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)

Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.



Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. :-)

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

Our Next Book: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) Join us at the end of August to discuss the first English book we’re looking at. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

  1. Pun intentional. []

12 comments

  1. Susan Loyal on #

    I did so love this novel. I kept thinking what the plot would have been like if the love affair had been heterosexual and the difference in age and life-experience had been similar, and I think the trope would have been some version of Pygmalion. I’m so delighted that it didn’t wind up in that territory, even though Therese’s initial crush has some of that “Oh, I want to look like that, and move that way, and wear those clothes, and be just exactly like her” quality. I worried a little during the road trip, when Carol began buying clothes for Therese and telling her when to wear them. Sorry as I am that Carol has to face that horrible custody battle, the novel changes in a very positive way when she stops running away from the awful PI, turns and confronts him. And then Therese has time alone to grow into her experiences and sense of self. The ending is just so delightful and so beautifully done.

    Harge and Richard should receive meta-invitations to a cocktail party at the penthouse of the dreadful millionaire in Valley of the Dolls and wind up stuck in the elevator with the male cast of Peyton Place. All the won’t-take-no men in one small space with no electricity and one pocket flask. What do you suppose would happen?

    I have to say that Carol’s relationship with Rindy struck me as a little unreal, and that may be because it’s filtered through Therese’s pov, but I wonder if it isn’t just that Carol tries so hard to be “perfect pretty mamma” for Rindy rather than daring in any way to be herself. One of the things that makes the ending so perfect is that it comes about not merely because Therese grows into herself but also because Carol has to stop running and hiding and face who she is. It isn’t all one character accommodating another.

    And for the central-theme-irrelevant loveliness, I adored the department store at Christmas time. (The novel was written the year before I was born. I MISS mid-century department stores, which I remember very clearly from the time I was three, especially at Christmas time.) Also, eggs in creamed spinach for lunch. I made them for dinner last week. They were just as good as I’d remembered.

    Thank you, Justine, for loving this novel and wanting to share it with the rest of us.

    • Justine on #

      I’m so delighted that it didn’t wind up in that territory, even though Therese’s initial crush has some of that “Oh, I want to look like that, and move that way, and wear those clothes, and be just exactly like her” quality. I worried a little during the road trip, when Carol began buying clothes for Therese and telling her when to wear them.

      You know it strikes me that we could talk about all of these novels in terms of clothing. I was particularly struck by the transformations in this novel as well as Best of Everything and Valley of the Dolls. It’s almost a trope of how you become a Manhattan girl in the 1950s by buying chic little suits and dresses and coats. I approve.

      And, yes, it’s fabulous that they’re relationship was far more complicated than the Pygmalion thing.

      And then Therese has time alone to grow into her experiences and sense of self. The ending is just so delightful and so beautifully done.

      Yes! And part of who she is her work: set designing. It really is a vocation for her that never feels tacked on. More than any other book we’ve read this is the one where a woman really loves her work and it’s a part of who she is not something she stumbled into and wants to throw over for some man.

      Harge and Richard should receive meta-invitations to a cocktail party at the penthouse of the dreadful millionaire in Valley of the Dolls and wind up stuck in the elevator with the male cast of Peyton Place. All the won’t-take-no men in one small space with no electricity and one pocket flask. What do you suppose would happen?

      OMG! Brilliant. I can’t tell you how much I want this to happen. Here’s hoping they become zombies.

      Maybe when we finish reading all these books we should vote on who’s the worst won’t-take-no man of all?

      Thank you, Justine, for loving this novel and wanting to share it with the rest of us.

      My pleasure. So glad you liked it too. And thanks so much for your always thoughtful contributions to the discussion.

      • Susan Loyal on #

        “Here’s hoping they become zombies.”

        I seem to be on a really slow fuse. That bothered me all night, and I woke up with the following realizations: a) But Justine LIKES zombies. b) Zombies like brains, and these don’t-take-no guys don’t seem so interested in brains. c) They engage in reductive faux algebra: girl=lap=mine. d) They must be unicorns. e) Justine doesn’t like unicorns. Yeah, that works.

    • Kate Elliott on #

      Susan, that’s such an excellent point about how if it were a heterosexual relationship it could have had a Pygmalion vibe to it, but Highsmith really does never go there because Carol is undergoing her own changes.

      I would LOVE to see that cocktail party. We can throw in the creepers from Best of Everything too! And whatsisname that awful nightclub owner from The Street.

      • Justine on #

        It’s much harder figuring out who are the men in these books who don’t belong in that lift. Probably just Dannie and Phil from The Price of Salt/Carol.

        • Susan Loyal on #

          I’m blanking on their names and too lazy to look them up, but the famous set design guy Therese wants to work with and the man she works for in Chicago, limited as their appearances are, strike me as belonging down the pub with Dannie and Phil instead of stuck in the lift on the way to the cocktail party from hell. (Highsmith is very good at making bit parts resonate. The woman who runs the rooming house has a life in my head that is larger than just her few lines of dialogue, too.)

          • Justine on #

            Yes, it really was lovely to see men in a 1950s novel taking a woman’s career seriously, believing in her, and trying to help her. Made me almost feel a little teary.

            • Kate Elliott on #

              Yes. They did not dismiss her but assumed she was serious about her craft. Nor did they ever mention her looks. In fact, Therese’s looks are rarely mentioned — only the obligatory “buying new clothes to look NY chic”

      • Susan Loyal on #

        Absolutely. Invitations to these, and I fear, many more. Isn’t it nice to imagine that all the never-take-no/I-know-best/useless male characters from all novels report for duty as usual in the fictional worlds they count on and just wind up instead on the elevator in Valley of the Dolls? (Maybe some of them could be trapped in a broom closet with the super from The Street, instead.)

        • Justine on #

          As long as they suffer, I’m good. :-)

  2. Susan Loyal on #

    Sorry, Kate. That last response was to you, about inviting the creepers from Best of Everything.

    • Justine on #

      Actually your reply is to Kate’s comment. It’s just the funky layout that makes it looks like it’s not.

Comments are closed.