The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith
2004 (originally 1952) • 292 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
I’ve decided that this is the year that I’m actually going to start tracking how diverse my reading is.
Over the course of the last five years (!), I haven’t really made a specific effort to read diversely. As a queer fannish lady type, I’ve sort of assumed that my reading will be more diverse than the average bear. But that assumption obviously doesn’t make up for my blind spots as a middle-class white girl who most people read as straight. I felt kind of sheepish about it last year, but there’s nothing to be gained by feeling awkward about it, so it’s time to fix that. Plus my newfound (okay, it’s been like two years, but it still feels new) love for nonfiction means that there are a lot more straight white dudes on my reading list as I seek out “canonical” texts about media and media history.
So I tackled my behemoth of a reading list recently and updated it to reflect the gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of the authors. And… well, there’s a lot more straight white dudes than anticipated. Which is exactly why I needed to start doing this. I’ve decided to start out by focusing on women writers for the first six months of 2015 (specifically, one book by a woman for every book by a man at the least) and then taking stock in the summer to see what I’ve learned about balancing my reading list and applying it to the other categories.
I bring this up in the context of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt because that’s the reason I picked it up so quickly after adding it to my reading list—fair play. I added it to my reading list as soon as Autostraddle alerted me to the existence of Carol, a forthcoming adaptation of the novel featuring Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird. (SCREAM!) Originally published in 1952 under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, The Price of Salt is famous for being one of the very rare mid-century lesbian novels that boasts a happy ending—no questioning girls returned to the land of heterosexuality by manly men, no lesbians driven mad, and absolutely no suicide. In 1984, Patricia Highsmith finally claimed the novel as hers, and it’s since been read in the context of her thrillers, like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and other midcentury literary classics. The W.W. Norton edition I rented from the library boasts a quote from Terry Castle’s review of the novel in The New Republic where she theorizes that Nabokov modeled the car chase in Lolita on Therese and Carol’s cross-country road trip.
But this, I think, means that we are reading The Price of Salt out of a certain context, although its context in Highsmith’s canon is undoubtedly important. (Context, context, context: it’s my rallying cry.) It’s not terribly much of a mystery, unless Therese attempting to decipher why she’s so attracted to Carol despite supposedly being straight counts. Which it certainly might—it’s sometimes easy to forget how long it can take to realize the obvious, especially when you’re starved for representation. It certainly has thriller aspects, especially once Therese and Carol realize that Carol’s husband has hired a detective to follow them in order to gather evidence.
But that tack can bury the novel’s achingly human characterization of Therese, the protagonist. A nineteen year old set designer trying to break into the biz in New York, she’s young and trying to determine what she wants out of her life and out of herself. In the novel’s first chapter, she has dinner with a co-worker at the department store she briefly works out and tries on a gorgeous dress:
The dress hung in straight draped folds down almost to her ankles. It was the dress of queens in fairy tales, of a red deeper than blood. She stepped back, and pulled in the looseness of the dress behind her, so it fitted her ribs and her waist, and she looked back at her own dark hazel eyes in the mirror. Herself meeting herself. This was she, not the girl in the dull plaid skirt and the beige sweater, not the girl who worked in the doll department at Frankenberg’s. (22)
She’s dating Richard, who is madly in love with her, but she’s clearly aware—to the point of telling him several times—that she doesn’t like him like that. Without any other model to go on, she simply assumes that attraction and passionate love aren’t available to her, until she sees Carol. Her relationship with Carol is the first time she ever wants something so desperately that it scares her—which firms up her identity, as Carol positively notes towards the end of the novel. I’m not fond of the idea that one’s first love is formative in your identity, but Therese’s passion for Carol illuminates Therese’s inner life to herself in a very unique way. At the beginning of the novel, Therese obliquely signals her interest to Carol; at the end of the novel, she confidently flirts with an actress before realizing that Carol is the only woman she wants. Her pursuit of Carol—and, of course, by Carol, these things are meant to be a two-way street—gives her the backbone she never knew she had.
Reading this as a young queer woman in 2015 is obviously miles away from reading it as a young queer woman in 1952. I can’t quite agree with Terry Castle’s assessment of it as an erotic thriller, as the sex scenes are quite abstract and the novel focuses much more on the sensuality of simple touch. But there’s still the simple thrill of representation, especially when it’s finding a happy ending for yourself sixty-three years ago.
Incidentally, Queerly Seen’s inaugural post deals with Highsmith and the legacy of The Price of Salt, so I heartily recommend checking out that post and keeping an eye peeled for further coverage as Cass investigates Highsmith’s life and writings.
I rented this book from the public library.