Highsmith's inspiration for The Price of Salt occurred in 1948 while picking up temporary work during the Christmas sales rush. A well-dressed woman came into the shop and the author was captivated by her. Later that evening, she wrote the outline for this novel in less than three hours. The next day she developed a high fever and came down with chickenpox. Talk about the best of times and the worst of times.
Therese Belivet is nineteen and lives in a mean apartment in New York. She dreams about saving enough money to eventually buy a proper bookcase. While working at Frankenberg's, a department store, during the Christmas season, she tells a colleague that her parents are dead. This isn't completely true but it's preferable to unpacking the story of her past. Therese has a boyfriend named Richard. He's a sterotypical all-American young man and despite the fact that she keeps him at arm's length, Richard is determined to include Therese in his long-term plans.
When Mrs. Carol Aird walks into Frakenberg's, Therese is immediately captivated by the woman's beauty and sophistication. Carol buys a toy for her little girl and leaves an address so it can be delivered. The two women establish a friendship while slowly unravelling a game of courtship. Carol introduces Therese to cocktails, nice restaurants, fashion, and driving a fabulous car. Richard, despite his desire to see Europe with Therese, has never made her heart flutter in anticipation the way it does when she's about to see Carol.
There is another fly in the ointment. Carol is married to Harge Aird, a businessman with connections. He's is the process of divourcing his wife and there is no question of their daughter being allowed to live with Carol because of a previous 'situation'.
It was both fascinating and frustrating to read about two men who know that the women they are in love with, love other women. The venom they hurl at people they profess to love down to ignorance and feelings of rejection is painful. It's painful to read because the scenario rings so true. This book glaringly portrays the tension of keeping your true feelings and gestures in check while in public during a time when same-sex relationships went against social mores. This story also made me cheer for Therese who flourished despite such deep levels of discrimination and a lonely childhood.
Patricia Highsmith received bags of letters when The Price of Salt was first published from people who were thrilled to read a book they could relate to. The letters continued to trickle in for decades. There's more to say but I don't want to ruin the experience of reading this thrilling story. Despite having seen the movie I was desperate to know what would happen on the next page.
The Price of Salt is a very American novel with a section featuring a road trip through the American Midwest. But I'll just add that being the anglophile I am, the writing reminded me of one of my English favourites, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. Patricia Highsmith has just become another favourite of mine.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in 'Carol'