Sunday, August 17, 2014

Patricia Highsmith's Carol


In April, I read a piece in the Books Blog section of the The Guardian about the crime writer Patricia Highsmith and realized that I'd never read any of her books. In trying to decide where to start first, I read about one of her books that was published under a pseudonym, and I got curious.

Fresh off her success of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, Highsmith wrote what would be published in 1952 as The Price of Salt (also published as Carol) under the name Claire Morgan, because her publisher did not want Highsmith to be associated with a novel about two women falling in love. Carol has gained quite a bit of notoriety over the years for the fact that it is considered the first lesbian love story to have a happy ending, but the novel is a bit more complex than that. 

Therese Belivet works as a shop assistant in the toy section of Frankenberg's department store in New York City. When the story begins, it is the Christmas season, and Therese helps a beautiful woman, Carol Aird, with her purchases and gets Carol's address, so her packages can be mailed. Therese can't stop thinking about Carol and sends her a Christmas card. Carol calls Therese, and the two meet for a drink. 

The two women are at different places in their lives. Therese is in her twenties and wants to be a successful stage designer but struggles to get meaningful work or any work. She is engaged to a man she doesn't love, and his love makes her feel smothered. Carol is divorced, and she and her husband are entangled in trying to work out a custody agreement for their only child, a daughter. Carol is of the middle class and a society woman. 

Therese and Carol become friends, although Therese would like more. With the stress of her divorce, Carol suggests that the two drive cross country. The story then becomes a thriller as Carol's husband has hired a private detective to follow the two women. He wants dirt that can be used against Carol so that he can have sole custody of their daughter. 

Away from New York City, Therese gets what she wants, and the two fall in love, not realizing that they are being followed. But once they discover what is happening with the private investigator, their relationship faces challenges that they didn't anticipate that eventually drives them apart.

I wasn't sure what to expect with Carol because it's not the kind of book I normally read, but I really liked Highsmith's writing. The book is part thriller and part love story, and I found it hard to put down. Highsmith has created a very suspenseful and tense thriller. One of the reasons it became so tense is that while we know how Therese feels about Carol, Highsmith never lets us know exactly how Carol feels until deep into the book. There is something about Therese that is a bit naive, and I found myself really worrying about what will happen to her. 

It was fun to read about New York City in the fifties when everyone was smoking and drinking too much. While the novel hints at what could be a happy ending for Therese, Carol gives up a lot because of her love for Therese, so I'm not sure that it has a truly happy ending.

I would recommend Carol and would be interested in reading more of Highsmith's work.

Have you read Carol?

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