CAROL (1952) by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith_Carol_penguinThis was Highsmith’s second novel and superficially is quite different from her usual tales of tortured suspense. It first appeared as by ‘Claire Morgan’ under the title The Price of Salt, the switch in identity due to the fact that it depicted a fairly unorthodox romance. Its love story between two women was perhaps a bit racy for its day though, given the author’s generally morbid proclivities, what really surprises is how generally upbeat it is. We begin at Christmas in a Manhattan department store a bit like Bloomingdale’s …

I offer the following reviews as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Therese frowned, floundering in a sea without direction or gravity, in which she knew only that she could mistrust her own impulses.”

While this novel opens with the depiction of a typical Highsmith nightmare – Therese ‘Terry’ Belivet spends an evening with a colleague and is horrified by a vision of the drab and lonely future that may lie in wait for her – the tone then switches somewhat. Terry is 19 and has been seeing Richard for nearly a year but is sure she isn’t in love with him (their sex life is almost non-existent after a few failed attempts). Terry wants to be a stage designer but to make ends meet is working as a sales assistant at Frankenberg’s during the Christmas rush and it is there that she is transfixed by the beauty and poise of Carol, who has come in to buy a doll for her daughter. On an impulse Terry sends her a note and so begins an unlikely friendships. Carol Aird is wealthy, charming and sophisticated and in the middle of a divorce. Her close friend Abby starts to resent Terry’s increasing presence, as of course does Richard, who thinks that Terry has merely succumbed to a ‘crush’ that will soon fade away. Both women are at emotional cross roads and decide to leave their troubles behind them and go on a driving holiday. Terry is sure she is madly in love with Carol, but does the older woman feel the same way? Why has she stashed a gun in her luggage? And who is the man who appears to be following them?

“I wonder if you’ll really enjoy this trip,” Carol said. “You so prefer things reflected in a glass, don’t you?”

Highsmith_Carol_bloomsburyTerry is a sensitive but callow youth, driven by passion and impulse and typically egocentric, distinctly lacking in real understanding of the impact her actions might have on others. Effectively abandoned by her mother after divorcing her father, Terry may be looking for a parental figure without realising it. Carol is older and wiser but has serious problems of her own that she is not sharing, not least concerns over access to her young daughter. Is Terry just a diversion from her real problems? Fans of Highsmith will instantly recognise her classic dynamic at play here – the attraction between two new acquaintances, one strong and powerful, the other submissive and pliable, and the dependence that grows out of it. However, although this is primarily a romance – meaning the ‘suspense’ is actually generated by our desire to know if love will out – structurally this still feels often like one of the author’s suspense yarns. Indeed, Terry and Carol’s relationship blooms and is tested while they are effectively on the run, travelling from town to town and hotel to hotel, becoming increasingly paranoid as they look for evidence of the man who is tracking them.

“How was it possible to be afraid, when the two of them grew stronger together every day?”

None the less, I have to say, Highsmith proves as adapt at the romance genre as the thriller, keeping us guessing about her protagonists for about as long as she dare so that when they finally do get together physically (pages 167 and 168 of my edition, pictured at Highsmith-Morgan_Price-of-Salt_bantamthe top of this post), it is a lovely, uplifting moment. It is said that there were lots of pulp paperbacks at the time focusing on a lesbian affair, but they tended to end with a heterosexual norm ultimately being re-established. The Price of Salt was apparently considered different because it left its female protagonists at the end gay and the better for it. It was a huge hit when published in paperback, which must have been a relief after Highsmith’s current publishers turned it down. It apparently made her into a real celebrity in the lesbian community (or anyway, her ‘Claire Morgan’ alter ego), something described in affectionate detail by Marijane Meaker (aka ‘Vin Packer,’ author of pulp classic Spring Fire) in her memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s.

To my considerable surprise, this novel ended up reminding me more than a little of Agatha Christie’s  Unfinished Portrait, originally published as by ‘Mary Westmacott’ (and which I previously reviewed here). Like Carol, it is anomalous in terms of her output as primarily a romance rather than a crime story, and one that is unusually draws directly from the author’s own life (the meeting with Carol derived from a true incident that occurred while Highsmith worked at Bloomingdale’s one Christmas, while Terry’s family life certainly mirrors the author’s). This is a much more successful novel than Christie’s though, thanks to more credible and appealing protagonists, though it has to be said, they are both overlong and burdened with surprisingly melodramatic plots.

The novel has just been filmed by Todd Haynes, with Cate Blanchett perfectly cast in the title role and I really look forward to seeing how it works on film. A friends of mine who caught it at a recent screening in Cannes raved about it.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘outside of my comfort zone’ category:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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76 Responses to CAROL (1952) by Patricia Highsmith

  1. Colin says:

    I’m not generally into romance, whatever the orientation, but this sounds like it might have something as it comes from Highsmith.
    I was very impressed by The Two Faces of January when I saw it a couple of years ago.

    • Thanks chum. I think you would like this one as it has a high suspense quitient and the section ont he run, which takes up most of the second hald of the book, is very well sdone (as you might expect). You presumably watched The Two Faces of January in ideal conditions 🙂

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Interesting, Sergio, and as ever, a fine review. I, myself, am not one for romance; I really am not. But I give Highsmith credit for innovating and for working in a different genre. That takes flexibility. I’m glad you thought this a solid outing for her.

  3. prettysinister says:

    Thanks for that clip. Eerily, Rooney Mara as Therese looks very much like the young Patricia Highsmith I have seen in photographs. Did the costumer/make up people purposely do that? Hmm… The interview the two do with Todd Haynes is also worth watching. Very eager to see the movie. I’ve enjoyed all of Hayne’s movies especially SAFE and FAR FROM HEAVEN and the amazing remake of MILDRED PIERCE with that other British Kate. Highsmith is one of my favorites and has been for decades. I’m sure I’ll be moved by the book when I read it. Next month I have A DOG’S RANSOM lined up for a read/post. Maybe I can sneak in PRICE OF SALT, too.

    • Thanks chum – I really, really like A Dog’s Ransom, which s wonderfulyl horrible. Don;t know why it’s not better known – treally look forward to your review. I hope you are not referring to Cate Blanckett as the other ‘British Kate’ chum – she’s Australian through and through! 🙂

      • John says:

        Ugh – What a blunder! I do that a lot these days. I used to be the one who corrects people for getting nationalities of actors and actresses wrong. You know, I thought Rooney Mara was Irish! I had to go to to find out why her accent was so thoroughly American in her interview. HA! Felt like an utter dolt. Then found out she was born in Bedford, NY just over the border from where I grew up in Connecticut.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    Primarily romance ? Then not for me !

    • Well, as close to the subject as Highsmith was likely to get – I take your point, and not my usual cup of java either, but I liked it all the same – if I’d said ‘primarily a love story’ I suspect more readers would go for it 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Look at it this way—it probably had some important influence on that Other romance novel, LOLITA. And, really, folks, get over yourselves. (And, of course, I do recommend, as below, reading SALt with SPRING FIRE and HIGHSMITH…)

        • It is interesting to speculate about the Nabokov link (which of course was rightly considered way iffuer even then) – I think it gets mentioned in the Schenkar book, right (not that I particularly cared for that biography).

          • Todd Mason says:

            It’s getting a fair amount of currency, as a probable nudge on Nabokov’s thinking about the shape of his narrative. After all, “Morgan”‘s novel was published rather elegantly and was not in any way treated as a throwaway novel…not that VN was avoiding the tawdry with his book, so much as exploring it with as much depth as he could bring to it.

          • It would be great to get this confirmed either way, but …

  5. Jeff Marks says:

    They filmed this near my home and used some local landmarks. I’m really looking forward to seeing this.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Oh, my…not, you, too, Sergio, misapplying “pulp” to paperback originals, particularly to the utterly non-pulpish SPRING FIRE…the annoying pseudohipsterish cuurency of “pulp paprerbacks” is there to be mocked in the self-righteously half-educated, but we should know better. I had fogotten about the variant titling of THE PRICE OF SALT when hearing of CAROL the film’s plot briefly yesterday, and meant to doublecheck if this was an adaptation of the Highsmith…and as one expects of PH, the affair,I’d suggest, doesn’t quite leave them both happy, but also doesn’t come under the mail censorship-leery strictures the paperback publishers feared, since so much of their print runs were sold through the mails and through only slightly less prickly local distributors. I’ve also suggested that SPRING FIRE, at least, cheerfully subverts the reading too many give it…like SAL’t, it leaves its psychologically better-off characters ready for more Sapphic fun down the road…

    • I think I was being accurate there chum, surely? I was referring to the junkier side of explotation publishing as per the comments made in the Highsmith memoir by Marijane Meaker you so kindly recommended, Not read the ‘Vin Packer’ book though

      • Todd Mason says:

        That’s just it…pulp isn’t junk per se, Gold Medal books weren’t, by and large, trash by any standard, and paperback originals were already seen as downmarket–as Lennon and McCartney noted rather deftly some time back. “Lesbian pulp paperback” is a term born out of profound lack of understanding the nature of just about everything, even as would be a reference to “lesbian television cinema”…I simply hope to suggest we don’t need to replicate the errors of others.

        • Well, fair enough as we have been here before – collapsing paperback originals with pulp is not necessarily right, but on the other hand to suggest that the cheaper explitation paperbacks were published on pulpy paper is right, surely?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Meretricious, though. The conflation is intentional, and has a certain smugness about it too often…we fine academic popcult explorers are Redeeming this trash, as opposed to recognizing the craft and art the writers were bringing to straitened circumstances. Another film parallel: to act as if CARNIVAL OF SOULS and KILLER OF SHEEP were the same sort of thing as typical Troma releases or Andy Milligan’s home movies with something approaching soundtracks…I mean, Really, they’re All Exploitation Movies, no?

          • Categorisation always makes people feel safer but it is such an easy trap to fall into, but as often as not it’s just about the marketing and not about the content … plus ça change

    • Todd Mason says:

      “SAL”t”? I’ve got to quit sleepily typing with only my unbusted hand on these laptops.And not [proofing before sending.

      • Just type CAROL instead 🙂 Or Rather, CAROl … Are you getting back to normal now in terms of being able to use a keyboard?

        • Todd Mason says:

          Always could, but lying down and using a laptop definitely leads to favoring the good hand for typing, while the busted left holds up the machine on my supine form. Typo city,

          • Whereas I have no excuse whatsoever for the endless typos … I’m just hoping that one day one will come out making me look funniy rather than stupid (as in the “I meant to do that” school of excuseology)

          • Todd Mason says:

            Well, the pseudo-scholars I excoriate here have no such inkling of the potential for guilt….

          • OK, I have no idea what you are getting at now chum – we don’t have no stinking pseudo scholars here 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Still grousing at those “scholars” including those who jump Salty with me (as a few have) for noting that “pulp paperbacks” is a clumsy way to refer to anything packaged at some point as infra dig, as you were getting at in the other thread…because pulps were invariably downmarket and trashy, and so say all my fellow 20-somethings I see each year at MLA gatherings, where we never do anything so wild as to pick up a copy of a pulp such as the utterly elegant BLUE BOOK, or even the often handsome WEIRD TALES.

          • I had to look up “infra dig” but am with you now – but surely, who are these strange people out there? I’d blame Tarantino, but I’m such a fan …

    • Todd Mason says:

      More correctly, strictures that the paperback publishers imposed, for fear of outside censorship…and to some extent out of their own bigoted shortsightedness masquerading as caution, I’m sure…

      • John says:

        “And, really, folks, get over yourselves.” HA! I burst out laughing at that, Todd. I so agree. I wonder if the “no romance stance” extends beyond not liking it in fiction.

        Adding to your discussion of the abuse of the term “pulp” and the patronizing views of pseudo-scholars: One of the biggest surprises to me when I started dipping into the world of “gay sleaze” — another catch-all label that the pop culture historians like to throw around — is that a lot of it IS NOT sleaze at all. Sure there was a lot of very bad gay porn being published just as there was lots of ersatz lesbian porn (ersatz because it was mostly written by straight men), but a lot of it was erotic and a handful of the books were profoundly moving in the detail of painful burgeoning gay romance. A couple of the books I read are the gay male versions of CAROL. Some of them were published at around the same time as Highsmith’s book, too though most are from the late 60s – early 70s. Additionally, some were released by mainstream well-established publishers not the “sleaze” paperback houses like Beacon and Midway. All my research is part of a lengthy essay that will be published next year in a book about popular fiction that grew out of women’s lib, gay liberation, Black Power and other reactionary movements of the 60s and 70s.

        • Sounds fascinating John – will you be looking at City and the Pillar? Always been cuious about the changes Vidal made ot the 60s reprint.

          • John says:

            Not City and the Pillar because it’s out of the thematic date range and also Vidal’s book is more literary than the books I’m focusing on. Mostly obscure pop fiction by relative unknowns all with a decidedly edgy content. John Rechy is included among the more recognizable names. THE FRONT RUNNER by Patricia Nell Warren is included. Quite a historic book in LGBT fiction and still in print after 40 + years. That’s one of the books I think has quite a bit reminiscent of CAROL.

          • Thanks for that John, shall look to find the Warren.

        • Todd Mason says:

          Sounds interesting…do you mean reactionary movements as well (THE TURNER DIARIES comes to mind), or solely revolutionary/civil rights movements? In a sense, the Carol Emshwiller collection I’m doing, while also Heavily Lit, is definitely informed by the feminist ferment of the time (and, since Ed Emshwiller her husband was already launching himself into experimental film and away from illustration by the turn of the 1970s, such stories in the book as “Autobiography”–one which definitely verges on essay, in a rather Borgesian manner–involve her interactions with the likes of Jonas Mekas and Nam June Paik…Sergio, you’re perhaps already taking note…).

          • I am indeed – and have in fact ordered Carol Emshwiller’s “Joy in our Cause” (and yeah, wish it had got past that hardback printing – a tad on the expensive side, Todd, but you made it sound so interesting).

          • John says:

            I guess my word choice conflated two aspects of what qualifies for inclusion. Here’s how my editor has phrased it, Todd (and Sergio):

            The theme of the book, which has not got a title yet, is pulp and popular fiction (including science fiction) inspired by or written in the context of the radical and liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the backlash against these from the 1970s onwards.

            The focus is on pulp, genre and other novels written for popular, rather than literary audiences (although we acknowledge there is some blurring of these boundaries) in the US, UK and Australia. This includes African American, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant communities and those movements dealing with anti-war movements, revolutionaries, radical students, feminists, GLBTI and ecological themes and struggles.

            The ‘backlash’ aspect of the publication deals with the various vigilante, anti-counter culture and ‘men’s adventure’ books that emerged from the early seventies onwards.

            So far not even a working title. The book will be from the same team who have put together Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats. I have a small contribution in that book being released in November, but much larger in the one to be published in 2016.

          • Thanks you John, sounds bloody good to me!

      • It is disconcenrting to realise how long that kind of censorhip has continued to go on – for all the bleating of First Amendment rights (mor like rites in some cases)

  7. tracybham says:

    I haven’t tried any of this author’s work yet, although I have plans to. I will come back and look into this one more when I have read a couple of her mysteries.

  8. I am NOT a big fan of Highsmith, but articles about the film have intrigued me, and could well end up looking at both film and book.

    • I am really looking forward to it and Todd haynes does seem like the right person to do it justice, though the ‘terry’ character will be the tough one to make work I think. We shall find out soon, hopefully …

  9. I vacillate back and forth with Patricia Highsmith. I like her short stories very much. Her novels vary in quality. When she’s good, she’s very very good. When she’s “off” her work requires too much of the reader.

    • I know what you mean George and I think that is a great way of putting it. I do think her books are too often overlong – but an amazing, singluar talent all the same.

  10. Sergio, while my reading trust with Highsmith is long overdue I had no idea she’d written anything like this. Interesting, I’ll say.

  11. Yvette says:

    Interesting, Sergio. I wondered what the ‘Carol’ movie was based on. Had just begun hearing about it online and watched the preview – love how Cate Blanchett looks. She is SUCH a chameleon. Rooney Mara seems kind of blank to me, but maybe I’ll change my mind if there’s another trailer.

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