27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.


11 Responses to “27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith”

  1. Grab the Lapels June 30, 2016 at 11:15 pm #

    Did you see the movie? Is the ending in the movie similar to what you read? I couldn’t fully understand the married woman’s motives from the film, but I’ll bet they’re more fully developed in the book, especially if she narrates her own sections.

    • www.anthologyofclouds.com July 3, 2016 at 1:01 am #

      No! I didn’t even know there was a movie. I’ll totally watch that.

      • Grab the Lapels July 3, 2016 at 4:11 am #

        Yes, it’s called Carol, though. You should be able to rent it at your library by now. Gorgeous piece of cinema.

  2. fiftywordsdaily July 1, 2016 at 12:43 am #

    I so need to read her. I’ve been meaning to for ages. Your post has just moved her up the to read list – so thanks. And what a cool beauty she had as well (I mean, I know this is not why you read someone, but you know….)

    • www.anthologyofclouds.com July 3, 2016 at 1:01 am #

      I know. I sometimes post photos of the writer…. but only when they’re hot! Despite how that is not relevant. :)

  3. thefeatheredsleep July 31, 2016 at 5:58 pm #

    I agree with you. I thought the happy ending was giving the readers what they want, by the conventions of the time. Selfishly I wanted a happy ending, but realistically that was unlikely. I didn’t watch the film because for me, the book was so perfect I didn’t want to ruin it (even though I hear the film is very good it would forever change my memories of the book and I just can’t do that with some favorite books). A friend gave me this book when I was about 15 I didn’t know I was gay then so the irony is immense. I read it as a straight teen, and I loved it, but not because of it having two women in it, as you say, the quality of the writing and the intensity of the conveyed emotions was the hook. As you also say, much lesbian pulp fiction really is poor, and so that’s what helps this classic endure (as well as Highsmiths fame with the Ripley series which was also made into a rather famous movie). I hear that Highsmith was a really unpleasant person, I wonder if she is the older of the two women, remembering perhaps her more ‘innocent’ self? I did have a feeling that she was both women, at two junctures in life, as the embittered older writer, with a history for seducing and bruising hearts, and harking back to perhaps, a first love. Either way, this story would work almost irrespective of gender/sex, except perhaps for the fact that it also well describes the scene of the time, the total lack of freedom. We may feel that things have changed but many times women (can’t speak to men) feel this way in relationships with other women, the fear of holding hands, doing something a straight couple would never think about twice. I suppose it’s a bit like saying slavery is abolished but black people still feel they cannot do certain things as freely or without judgement – that’s how some of us feel too so it’s a story for all ages. I thought you did a great job of this review and my book list has SWELLED because of several other suggestions you make earlier in your blog.

    • Ivalleria August 1, 2016 at 2:29 am #

      Hi! Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I am always so delighted when people find books they might want to read through my blog. & God, that Highsmith was good, right? I’ve also heard that she was a difficult character but she was such a iconoclast that i cut her slack. Also I do that because I find her to be extremely hot.

      The innocent self younger girl though, I think she was Highsmith more than Carol was. The younger woman had that creative success and people sometimes found her cold. I think her last scenes where she sees the party and the other women she could fuck and thinks, “Huh, Not Bad” were truer to real life. That clever and self-directed young woman would only fall in Carol-like obsession once. And while Carol was alluring and magnetic she wasn’t really that interesting. Highsmith put a more acceptable romance ending on it but I bet her personal story was that she stayed at the party. Those were my idle speculations.

      I coulda shoulda written more about how much I loved that book. Wish I’d read it when I was 15. :)

      Tell me if you read/like anything else I’ve written up!! & thanks so much for commenting!

      • thefeatheredsleep August 1, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

        I lived in Europe at the time and a friend worked in publishing and gave me a little book published by Bloomsbury and I read it mostly because it was so beautifully bound and designed, who knew it was the first step to a whole lot of steps into being gay. Anyway it didn’t have the profound gay-ness effect that The Well of Loneliness had (Radcliffe Hall) they don’t call that the Lesbian Bible for nothing ;) But on a literature level it definitely had more of an impact and recall. I don’t usually read a book more than once I think I’ve read Carol about 4 times. It’s definitely a book you get more out of with each read. On the les-theme I would say there needs to be MORE well written books by gay women (the gay being incidental) but over-all they are pulpy at best. The notable exception, Sarah Waters. Straight people and gay love Waters. Her books are historical gems. Of all I’d say the best remain her first; Tipping the Velvet and then the second, Affinity. I also really liked Fingersmith. She ‘happens’ to have gay characters but she’s not just a gay woman trying to dominate her prose with gayness, so it’s really easy for straight people to like her too. That’s the problem with any ‘genre’ that’s too narrow, if you only write for your target audience so many others never get to hear stories that all of us can benefit from. I think your reviews are GREAT btw and I agree, maybe Carol isn’t Highsmith .. hard to say without reading her bio which I confess I have never done. Okay so now it’s my turn for a book recommendation. I recommend a book by Elizabeth Smart (not THE E. S., of abduction-Mormon-Utah-story) called As I Sat Down At Grand Central Station and Wept. If you ever have time and inclination that’s the book I really loved, I hope you read it some day and if you do I hope you review it because I’d love to read your review on that particular book.

        • Ivalleria August 3, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

          Ok, bought it and it is on its way… though I will not read it until after my #20BooksOfSummer challenge is over! Thank you for the recommendation. I had not heard of the Mormon Elizabeth Smart, and find her kind of a fascinating archetype too. She’s so blond! She plays the harp! I have never read the Well of Loneliness and would like to. I was comparing The Price of Salt more to the lesbian pulp of the time but your comment is making me think about the state of lesbian fiction in general. Surely Sarah Waters isn’t still the standard-bearer!? (Though she’s a great writer). Why can’t I think of any contemporary literary lesbian writers who are really excellent? Surely I’m just not thinking of them. I read so much queer fiction but when I’m looking for someone of the stature of Alan Hollinghurst or Tom Spanbauer or Garth Greenwell….. who do we have? Alison Bechdel is amazing but she’s not a novelist. Nicola Griffith but I don’t think she’s famous the way those men are. Who am I missing? And do you ever read fantasy? Because my favorite lesbian author is Jacqueline Carey. It’s trash-y but that first Kushiel’s Dart series might have my favorite lesbian romance of all time.

          • thefeatheredsleep August 3, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

            I love fantasy so I shall give Jacqueline Carey a go because she sounds like someone I would probably enjoy. Well I could give you the PC answer or the un-PC answer. The latter is more fun ;) Something along the lines of … if you compare gay men to gay women what differences appear stark? Gay men are often more put-together and more good looking than straight men. Gay women tend to fall in the lower end of attractive (I know I can be lampooned for saying this but it’s so true over-all I can only say this being gay myself but also from extensive research!). I don’t place too much stock in looks but it’s good when a person has a personal style that isn’t a wife-beater and crew-cut (JUST SAYING!) anyway enough with the judgement and dragon slaying ;) I suspect the same is true of fiction it’s just caught up in the paradymn (can’t spell that word) and too cliched. The trick is not to let you define yourself but to be incidental about it. Anyway I aim to correct that one day when I’m through with poetry ! ;) I shall be sure to read that book! I’d go further and say, whilst there are many authors, FEW really are excellent. I read a lot too (probably not as much as you) and the amount of times I read something I think was a let-down in some form or fashion. There many be an infinite number of authors but there are finite pathways I believe and few find them xo

  4. An Anthology of Clouds September 28, 2016 at 1:44 am #

    Here’s a wonderful post on this book from Electric Literature. https://electricliterature.com/the-price-a-queer-daughter-of-a-queer-mother-52551a1383d9#.14fva1z6j

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