The Price of Salt


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.)


  • I am ashamed to say that I have never read any Highsmith and checking my shelves I don't seem to have ever even bought anything by her even though I know how highly she is thought of as a writer. Thank you for bringing this to my attention - another one for the library list.

  • I love it when a book sucks you in and you don't even realize it. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • This is more beachy than Cancer Ward but still an unconventional choice. I have not read Highsmith yet. I always imagined I would read The Talented Mr. Ripley but now I'm going to have to think twice about that.

  • Gently poked fun. Could not help it. CANCER WARD on the beaches of Hawaii. :)

    Glad you like this one because I love it. Think it is one of Highsmith's best for especially one of the reasons you mention here - her ability to render emotional detachment not just in her characters relations with each other but in her own authorial relationship with them. Love re-defined here for sure but that is always more satisfying to me than some saccharine rendition of romance.

  • I came across a website once that featured all these covers from old pulp novels and magazines. It included a gallery of lesbian-themed paperbacks from the 50s-60s and it looks like virtually all those books were sexual fantasies aimed at straight men. Another blog I read recently ran an article by a gay man about the heterosexual people appropriating LGBT sexuality for their own titillation and how problematic that is. He was also concerned with contemporary m/m fan fiction (called "slash") written by straight women, and argued that many of those fics treat their gay characters like nothing more than "pose-able mannequins."

    Since The Price of Salt looks like a serious treatment of lesbianism written by an actual lesbian, I'm guessing that's something else that made it groundbreaking. Especially since it sounds like the focus was on the relationship and homophobia, as opposed to just sex.

  • This sounds really fascinating. After reading The Talented Mr. Ripley, I have lots of respect for Highsmith, and I'm glad to hear her other work is really good as well.

    I don't really buy the idea of beach reads -- or rather, a beach read is whatever I happen to be reading at the beach, whether it's serious or not. But, then, I rarely go to the beach, so what do I know? :)

  • Study Window: No shame; this was my first Highsmith, too! Now I'm excited to check out the rest of her catalog...

    Trisha: Yes, it's the best! Hope you enjoy it too. :-)

  • Stefanie: I've heard good things about Mr. Ripley, but I've also heard that other Highsmith is even better...obviously haven't read the former, so can't compare. I do recommend this book, though.

    Frances: Oh, poke away! :-) I definitely agree about the saccharine lovey-lovey version of romance; I have a very hard time with that as well! I'm not sure I found Therese & Carol's relationship romantic even in a modified sense, but I definitely found it compelling & interesting, so who needs romance? I'd be interested what other Highsmith you would particularly recommend...

  • EL Fay: You bring up some really interesting questions that play into my confusion (or lack of knowledge) about the history of lesbian pulp. It seems like many of the innovators actually were lesbian or bisexual women (Thereska Torres's Women's Barracks is often called the "first lesbian pulp novel," with Marijane Meaker's Spring Fire following close on its heels), & then the straight men jumped on the bandwagon when they figured out there was a market. BUT I'm confused by the widespread claim that Price of Salt was the "first" of these books to end happily, as if the genre were well-established when it came out...Women's Barracks only preceded Highsmith's book by two years. Maybe people really mean that later on, when the genre had been established for a while and fans were tracking its conventions, they looked back to Highsmith as the first to follow this unusual path where nobody dies or goes mad? It's a subject I'd be interested in knowing more about, anyway.

    Dorothy: Yes, recommended! And obviously I don't really buy the beach-read idea fact I'm often tempted to take my more challenging books with me on vacation, since I'm likely to have more uninterrupted reading time on planes/beaches than elsewhere.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography