Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Acquired how: bought paperback

Carol is a curious book. Originally published as The Price of Salt under the pen name Claire Morgan, Carol is equal parts lesbian romance, suspense thriller and coming of age story. It’s hard to know how to categorise this book, which is going to make tagging by genre tricky.

I watched the film earlier in the year so I was eager to read the book. Though there are changes in the adaptation, both versions of Carol are remarkably similar. Therese is a sales assistant in the toy section of a department store; Carol is the elegant woman who comes to her section to buy a toy for her child’s Christmas present. The connection between them sparks a relationship that changes the course of their lives.

Therese is 19 and an aspiring set designer. She seems crushed under the weight of her life, almost paralysed with fear of being stuck working at the department store forever like her co-worker Mrs Robichek, pushed into wearing clothing she doesn’t especially want, and dating a boy – Richard – that she doesn’t especially like. The atmosphere in the early chapters is claustrophobic. When she agrees to a trip with Carol halfway through, I could only feel a sense of relief.

Carol is more mysterious. She seems more remote and frequently cold. Her actions are easily explained by her divorce drama but Therese doesn’t really see or understand it (at least, until the end, and even then she expects Carol to choose Therese over her child).

My experience of reading this book was necessarily influenced by having seen the movie first. There were plot moments I was eager to get to, which made me frustrated, at times, with parts of the book prior to that (hardly the fault of the book). The movie also benefited from giving the audience Carol’s point of view, so that she was more of a rounded character and less of an idealised object, and her fears of losing her daughter were given more weight. Because the book, on the other hand, is limited to Therese’s point of view, Carol remains frustratingly out of reach for much of the book. Though her motivations become clear to the reader with time, they remain opaque to Therese for much of their relationship.

And Therese is so very young – 19, and the kind of 19 that makes it difficult for her to sympathise with Carol’s fear of losing custody of her daughter. This book is as much about her slow maturity toward an adult identity as it is about her first romance. In Carol she seems to be looking for a mother figure as much as a lover, which is equal parts creepy and fascinating.

And yet for all that, I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of the book has an afterward from Highsmith, talking of the letters she received from fans so happy to read a lesbian novel with a happy ending. Frankly, even in 2016, that’s something I get excited about.

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