Review: “Carol” by Patricia Highsmith
- Hot off the presses comes a contribution from another of our new writers, Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin:
In late 1948, while suffering from the chickenpox, Highsmith began her one non-suspense novel. The Price of Salt was a love story between two women, which has now been re-published under the title Carol.
Now, before any discussion of queer theory or historical significance or anything, let it be said that this book is a dizzyingly pleasurable read. It’s poetic, it’s sexy; it’s one to read cover-to-cover on a winter evening with a glass of red wine.
It begins with Therese who, in the tradition of 1950s pulp, is a green young girl who meets an impossibly sophisticated older woman and becomes overwhelmingly smitten. They meet in the department store where Therese is working and Carol is buying. In her infatuation, Therese sends Carol a Christmas card with her purchase and, in her curiosity, Carol calls her up and asks her to lunch. Sure, it’s implausible, but it’s fiction. Sometimes, only sometimes, writers should just make our daydreams come true.
The author based Carol’s appearance on a real woman she saw in a department store and her personality is the combination of the best traits of all the women Highsmith had ever been attracted too. She wrote her dream woman. In the process, she wrote everyone’s dream woman; beautiful, wealthy, hard-drinking and hard-to-get. Some people may think that the wide-eyed young Therese is good enough for Carol, but I’m certainly not one of them.
So, the serendipitous lunch begins a sublimely slow-burning romance which, of course comes with its complications. In the foreword to the new edition Highsmith described the era in which she was writing:
Those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual…
Highsmith’s biographer, Andrew Wilson, argued that Carol is an archetypal tale of McCarthy’s America and the initial buoyancy of the lovers is challenged by a vindictive husband, a private detective (it’s all very ‘50s), and a custody battle. Late in the novel, Therese suddenly becomes aware “that the whole world was ready to be their enemy.”
However, this novel is a landmark in lesbian fiction because Highsmith forces the reader to acknowledge that this is not a story of persecuted love. It’s a story of two lovers, who happen to be persecuted. She did so consciously, fighting the established tradition of lesbians in novels “who had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell”.
Even in a brighter time, Carol is a novel to rekindle your defiance.