Blog-buddy Frances poked fun at me the other day for making such an ambitious and, let's face it, such a GRIM selection for my first beach read in Hawaii. I have to admit she's perfectly right. What was I thinking? Soviet cancer wards? Chill, woman!
My second selection was, on the face of it, a more predictable choice for lounging on the beach: famous for being the one of the first lesbian novels with a "happy ending" (on which more later), Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is technically a romance novel, after all. It focuses on the relationship between the nineteen-year-old Therese Belivet and the thirty-something, married Carol Aird, whom she meets while working a seasonal counter position in the toy department of Frankenberg's department store one Christmas season in the late 1940s. The two women, one hovering on the brink of fully-fledged adult life and the other in the process of exiting an estranged marriage with her young daughter in tow, engage in an "am I imagining it?" courtship that winter in New York City, then embark on an "I'm not imagining it after all" road trip across the American midwest and far west, until reality catches up with them in the form of a private detective and a manipulative divorce suit.
Highsmith's prose, and the world she creates with it, snuck up on me so gradually I hardly noticed that I was powering through this novel in less than a day. One moment I was ten pages in, thinking "Hm, wonder what the fuss is about?" The next I was noting down passages showcasing Highsmith's eye for detail and ability to make the mundane seem intriguingly menacing, and the next—before I could believe it—I was turning the final page on Carol and Therese's whirlwind winter and spring. The central plot here may feature a romance, and there may be a fairly steamy sex scene or two, but Highsmith made a name for herself primarily as a mystery/suspense writer, and it was the mix of horror and delight (and delighted horror) that really hooked me. I loved the way she located psychological states in concrete, physical details, as in the moment when Therese tries to feel exhilarated about her first real job offer, "but could not recapture even the certainty she remembered when she had looked at the orange washcloth in the basin after Richard's telephone call." The way in which the orange washcloth, in Therese's distracted mind, becomes an ineffectual talisman of her former certainty, strikes me as so true to life. And here, Therese arrives at her stop-gap toy department job:
The little train was always running when she stepped out of the elevator in the morning, and when she finished work in the evening. She felt if cursed the hand that threw its switch each day. In the jerk of its nose around the curves, in its wild dashes down the straight lengths of track, she could see a frenzied and futile pursuit of a tyrannical master. It drew three Pullman cars in which miniscule human figures showed flinty profiles at the windows, behind these an open boxcar of real miniature lumber, a boxcar of coal that was not real, and a caboose that snapped round the curves and clung to the fleeing train like a child to its mother's skirts. It was like something gone mad in imprisonment, something already dead that would never wear out, like the dainty, springy footed foxes in the Central Park Zoo, whose complex footwork repeated and repeated as they circled their cages.
This is a lovely instance of illustrating a character's mental state through her perceptions of details, and several of the descriptive bits are deliciously creepy: the flinty profiles of the miniature train-riders; "something already dead that would never wear out." Therese has reached a pitch of desperation to match the toy train, perceiving her co-workers and customers at Frankenberg's to be almost as mechanical, and perhaps even more menacing, than the flinty-faced miniature rail passengers. The ironic thing is that, while meeting Carol helps convince her otherwise for a while, the dénouement of the book basically goes to prove her right.
Because if Highsmith's reputation as a rather dark and damaged (read: mean and nasty) person makes it surprising that hers should be the first "homosexual romance novel" with a "happy ending," I'd caution readers not to get too surprised before actually reading the book. The ending of The Price of Salt is "happy" only in comparison to the lesbian pulp novels of the same era, in which the heroines usually died or went insane. Instead, Highsmith gives us both Therese and Carol grappling with emotional devastation, remaining (much to their credit) sane, but struggling with Scylla and Charybdis choices to which there is no "happy" outcome. Carol is asked to choose between her little girl and the woman she loves; when she capitulates, the court takes her daughter anyway. And Therese, in a plotline I found almost sadder than Carol's, ends up alienating the man who, at the beginning of the novel, was her best friend. The reader is left wondering about the mechanical cruelty of people to one another; even the main characters are far from immune.
This is tricky territory, but I respect Highsmith for refusing to play either Carol's nor Therese's losses as manipulative tear-jerkers. The two woman are separated during the climactic scenes of their drama, meaning that the reader hears about Carol's situation only through the occasional letter or telephone call with Therese, and is left to fill in much of her story between the lines. As for Therese, by the time she receives the final proof of her former friend's self-interested dismissal, she no longer cares much about him one way or the other, and is certainly not dwelling on their former friendship with the same tenderness I was. This emotional detachment is actually a trademark of many characters in The Price of Salt: Therese may become sexually fixated on Carol, and the two women may eventually come to some kind of agreement that might be termed "love," but for a romance novel it's remarkably un-Romantic. Highsmith seems more concerned with obsession and cruelty and only incidentally, almost casually, gestures at a chance of coexisting passion and kindness. When, for example, after they've finally acknowledged their attraction and slept together, and Therese asks Carol why she's kept her at arm's length so long, Carol eschews the usual disclaimers about wanting to protect Therese, doing it for her own good, or not being sure Therese was attracted to her or knew what she was getting into. Instead, she basically confesses that she got a kick out of toying with Therese, and was afraid of getting bored:
I thought there wouldn't be a second time, that I wouldn't want it...And there was something else—to have you around reminding me, knowing you and knowing it would be so easy.
Terry Castle has hypothesized that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov's Lolita; although Therese is old enough to make her own sexual decisions (unlike Dolores Haze), there is still a hint of the predator about this side of Carol. Likewise, although Highsmith spends a fair amount of time establishing the unusual, if delicate, camaraderie between Therese and Richard, Therese has almost no thought of him at all once she's met Carol. In context, I suppose this can seem sort of sexy—an example of passion sweeping Therese off her feet. But when we see similarly short memories in others—when Carol's daughter starts to forget her in the face of ever-more expensive gifts from the girl's father, for example—they seem more dark reminders of how fleeting human connections can be. The strictures of a homophobic society are one hurdle that Carol and Therese face; another, equally large, is simply the fickle wind of human nature. Highsmith does not downplay the difficulty of living in a homophobic culture, but neither does she pretend that, given cultural acceptance of homosexuality, people would all be lovely and caring to one another.
Despite the capacity of every character in the book to be selfish and emotionally amnesiac, however, the dynamic between Carol and Therese still manages to "work" as a romance, as well as a portrait of the dark side of human nature. Their character arcs are sufficiently long and changeable, and their flaws and strengths are realistically enough portrayed, and the attraction between them is conjured well enough, that I wanted them to have a chance as a couple. I left the novel still undecided about whether, given everything both women lose as the price of togetherness, I still congratulated them on the victory. I do, however, congratulate Highsmith on a taut and fascinating study, and I look forward to reading more of her books in future.
(The Price of Salt was my second book for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name.)