This 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?”
Terry 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 the 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: