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.
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.
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.
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.