The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (aka Carol by Patricia Highsmith) #CCSpin

The Price of Salt by Clarie Morgan (aka Carol by Patricia Highsmith)
Reading at the beach: 1986 Naiad Press Edition

The latest Classics Club Spin finally landed on a book I loved!

The Price of Salt was first published in 1952 by Claire Morgan, a pen name take by Patricia Highsmith who didn’t want to be pigeonholed (and blacklisted or worse) as a lesbian writer in a time when homosexuality was illegal and universally considered a psychological disorder. The novel wasn’t published under Highsmith’s name until 1990 with the title Carol. I’ve heard the 2015 movie adaptation is good, but I’ve been holding off viewing it until I read the book (a courtesy I no longer extend to all novels).

The novel is a romance, a love story and coming of age novel, told from the perspective of Therese Belivet, a young woman who was abandoned by her parents and raised in an orphanage. She’s nineteen and starting off on her own in New York City. She has an apartment, pays her own way in the world, and is beginning to make connections toward becoming a set designer. There’s something missing in her life. Her boyfriend comes from a large, loving family that gives him a sense of stability and belonging, but also leaves him without a hunger for more.

Therese lost her job with a publisher and is working as a holiday temp in a big department store. Her world is forever changed when she spots a beautiful, sophisticated blonde woman wearing a mink. Enter Carol Aird. Its days before Christmas. The two women have an instant connection. Carol is older, wealthy, and going through a divorce. Therese initiates contact and their relationship develops swiftly. [You may have heard the joke: What do lesbians do on a second date? Answer: rent a U-Haul.]  By the end of January they’re on a road trip together, headed west as an escape for Carol to take her mind off the fact that her husband has custody of their daughter for the next three months. Neither woman suspects that the trip will turn into a trap. Highsmith creates some great tension and there are a couple scenes that will stay burned in my memory. I look forward to reading her suspense novels.

When I was working on my Masters degree in the early 1990s one of my areas of concentration was lesbian fiction. Back then, Queer Studies was in its infancy. I no longer have the list of novels that I read for my oral exam on this subject, but The Price of Salt was not on it. How the hell did that happen, I wondered, as I read this fabulous novel. In addition to it being the early days of literary scholarship on lesbian literature, it was also the early days of the internet, so my sources were a bit limited. The rapid innovation of the internet and the spread and maturation of Queer Studies go hand-in-hand.

First edition cover [source]. This pristine edition is selling for $3,750 USD.

It’s been said that The Price of Salt was the first “homosexual” novel with a happy ending. I believe it. One of the draw backs of reading 50 or so lesbian novels in the early 1990s was that the more recent novels were usually horribly written and the older ones depressing as hell (think The Well of Loneliness). That’s not to say this novel isn’t without high anxiety and gut wrenching anguish. I had a few groan out loud moments while reading. Some of the foreshadowing or “clues” sprinkled throughout struck fear in me. I know how innocent confessions and “evidence” have been used against gays and lesbians.

Although I came of age in the 1980s, thirty years after this novel was written (in the “freer time” Highsmith mentions below) the brutal experience that Carol and Therese go through hit close to home for me. I served in the pre-DADT Marines and have first-hand experience of living in the closet/living a double life and hiding from investigators looking to “bust homos.” In the 1990s I also watched the agony of friends with children go through custody battles with homophobic and/or vengeful ex-husbands.

As Highsmith wrote in the afterword to the edition I read,

There may be fewer Thereses in this freer time, but there will always be Carols in a thousand cities, with similar stories. A girl marries young, often with some parental pushing, with a vague and unexplored conviction that she is doing the right thing. A few years later, the truth comes out, has to be enacted because it cannot be repressed any longer. Often there is a child by then. To hell’s furies might be added the fury of the husband and father who has “lost” his wife’s love to another woman. Powerless as men, they resort to the law to effect what they see as justice and often as justifiable revenge too, so they insist that the law do its worst (279).

    Bantam paperback cover

    What is beautiful about this novel is the way these two women find one another and the wide-eyed first love that Therese experiences. In the end, Therese grows up, starts to mature, and comes to understand that she won’t be all alone in the world, even if her road won’t be as simple as girl meets boy. Her finding that glimmer of hope was certainly a positive change from how many gay or lesbian characters ended up in this time period. And Carol chooses to live life on her own terms, even if it means sacrifice. And even if that sacrifice leads to a wonderful plot twist.

    She writes to Therese,

    It was said or at least implied yesterday [by legal counsel] that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing–that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition” (246).

    The verdict: A fantastic read and a must read for those interested in lesbian lit and lives, women’s issues, and/or mid-century fiction. I hope recent editions have a solid introduction that provide historical context for this book, because unless younger readers understand the climate of the time period and the risks these characters are taking, I’m not sure the tension will be as taunt as Highsmith intended. In fact, it might not seem like Therese and Carol are taking any risk at all.

    I’m so grateful for all the activists and allies who fought for LGBTQ rights over the decades so that with each passing year more people are coming to believe that there is nothing wrong with being “different,” rather it’s forcing a person to live against one’s “grain” that is the true atrocity.

      Author: Chris Wolak

      I'm cohost of the podcast Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read and write about books and libraries on my blog, WildmooBooks.

      4 thoughts

      1. We read this one for my book club a while back and I loved it. People say that it's a happy ending, but I mean…Carol loses custody of her daughter, right? It seemed just bittersweet to me. Though I suppose anything else wouldn't have been realistic…

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      2. I've been thinking about your comment and perhaps “hopeful” is a better word than “happy.” Carol is already prone to drinking, so will she be able to move on without her daughter or will she turn into an alcoholic? Will her husband's anger dissipate over time and allow Carol more time with the daughter? Carol does seem to be in a state of shock, saying that she would “almost prefer not to see Rindy at all any more” seems like a reactionary response to the trauma of the situation. I haven't had characters linger in my mind like Carol and Therese have for quite a while. Makes me imagine a sequel.

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