Thursday, May 5, 2016

Carol, by Patricia Highsmith

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Patricia Highsmith's 1950s million seller was the first gay novel with a happy ending.

It's incredible to think that Patricia Highsmith's second novel, Carol (originally published as The Price of Salt), sold close to a million copies in its day. Rejected by her publishers Harper and Bros., Carol received favourable reviews when it appeared in 1952 as a hardback under the pen name Claire Morgan. Sales really took off when it came out as a paperback.

In the 1989 afterward, Highsmith writes that Carol was the first gay novel to have a happy ending. Usually life ended pretty badly for gay fictional characters. In the fifties, when the novel was riding high, letters poured in every week from readers with personal stories.

The story itself was worked up from a brief encounter. Highsmith took on a Christmas job working at a New York department store late in 1948, where she was assigned to the doll counter. (It's amusing to imagine the misanthropic Highsmith selling toys.) One day a striking blonde woman in a fur coat came into the store, looking to buy a doll for her daughter. Struck by the woman's beauty, Highsmith later that night wrote an eight page treatment for the novel that would become Carol.

In the novel, the mysterious woman is reimagined as Carol Aird. She is in her early thirties, beautiful, blonde, well heeled, oozing confidence, yet also deeply troubled. Her marriage to her husband, Harge, is a complete mess, for the most part due to Carol's ambivalence and unresolved sexuality. All that's left of the relationship is the messy divorce process. The couple have a daughter, Rindy. One day when shopping at a New York department store, Carol meets the young saleswoman Therese Belivet. The two are taken with each other and start having a few innocent yet exploratory luncheon dates. The relationship slowly develops, with Therese visiting Carol's large, middle-class house. Therese also has a current relationship underway with a budding artist, Richard, although that is on shaky ground. Eventually Carol and Therese are having a full blown affair, yet there are all sorts of problems. Carol has a custody battle on her hands over her daughter, Rindy, and Therese must finally figure out what to do about her relationship with Richard (he claims to be madly in love with her.)

Like all of Patricia Highsmith's fiction, Carol is a real page turner. Even in this supposedly straight forward love story, there is plenty of suspense and tension as Carol and Therese navigate their way through a hostile world. Highsmith has the ability to mesmerise, always giving her story a perfect pacing, revealing details and action in just the right way. Another enjoyable aspect of her fiction is how she brings alive locations, textures and smells – New York restaurants, busy streets and regular, everyday people. There are also plenty of personal observations and experiences which are woven into her fiction. In Carol, you really feel like you've been transported back to 1950s America.

My only criticism is that the relationship between Carol and Therese seems weirdly disengaged, even odd. It's hard to figure out exactly why they love each other. Their attitude veers between passionate declarations of love to aloofness and an eerie distance. The tone is often quite blasé. Their dialogue is full of strange silences and pregnant pauses, of fits and starts, giving it an unfathomable, even cryptic air. If this love affair were expressed as music, it would be a jarring, experimental piece.

While I enjoyed Carol, the more I read of their relationship the more I waited for some kind of genuine intensity of feeling, but that never arrived.

Carol, by Patricia Highsmith. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN:  9781408865675 $19.99

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