Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Patricia Highsmith’

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel. I read this during my commute to and from work on the train, and I have to admit, I occasionally looked around at my fellow passengers wondering who, if any of them had murder in their hearts. I’m particularly suspicious of people jammed into the aisle in our over-full train who is looking at anyone who is seated.

Strangers on a Train follows Guy Haines, a young architect at the beginning of his career. Guy wants to marry the woman he loves, but unfortunately is already married to Miriam, who is pregnant with another man’s child. When the story began, Guy was on a train on his way to his home town in Texas, to discuss a divorce with Miriam.

During the journey a drunken stranger, Charles Bruno, forced his company on Guy, and over dinner proposed to Guy that they swap murders, that is, Charles would murder Guy’s wife and in return, Guy would murder Charles’ rich father, which would free up Charles’ inheritance. Guy was appalled by the conversation but would have forgotten all about it, except that Miriam was murdered by an unknown person several weeks later.

Instead of going to the police like a normal person and dobbing Charles in for the murder, Guy was worried that he would somehow be implicated and instead, kept quiet and carried on with his normal life. Guy suffered somewhat from a guilty conscience, but without the threat of adverse publicity from a divorce, his career took off and he and Anne, the love of his life, planned to marry. All would have continued happily had not Charles re-entered Guy’s life and harangued him into carrying out his part of their supposed bargain.

I was more than a little amused by the idea of a train journey where two passengers could enjoy a private conversation, since my train line is one of the most crowded in Melbourne and very often looks more like this recent photo from the Herald-Sun newspaper:

Understandably in these circumstances, thinking about murdering someone is fair enough, even if there is no privacy for my fellow commuters and I to be able to discuss who to get rid of first, although obviously the person who is going to get murdered first will be yelling into their mobile phone. Consider yourselves warned, loud people…

The plot of Strangers on a Train is intriguing, but the story dragged on a little. Charles’ character was overly forceful and over-the-top, while Guy’s was overly weak. I preferred The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith however still found much to enjoy in Strangers on a Train. Not only that, I’ve got the movie of the same name, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock to look forward to.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith


I’ve been looking out for Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith at my local library without success, so was delighted to find The Price of Salt by this author.

The Price of Salt was published in 1952 and tells the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman who is working in the toy department of a large New York store during the lead up to Christmas. Therese is saving and working to become a stage set-designer. She has a boyfriend, Richard and a handful of arty friends. Therese was abandoned by her mother while she was at boarding school and her closest relationship during her teenage years was with a kind young nun.

Therese sells a doll to a glamourous customer, then impulsively sends the woman, Carol, a Christmas card. Carol responds by asking Therese for a drink.

As they get to know each other Therese learns that Carol is going through a nasty divorce and is fighting her husband for custody of their daughter Rindy. Carol invites Therese to take a road trip with her to help pass the time until her divorce is finalised and Rindy is returned to Carol. During the trip Therese and Carol realise they have fallen in love.

The trip and their love affair is soured when they realise a private detective has been following them and that their hotel rooms have been bugged, with the recordings to be used against Carol in the divorce proceedings. Carol tells Therese she can’t see her any more and returns to New York to fight for her daughter, leaving Therese behind in the Mid-West.

The story is a gently told romance, but I have to admit that I struggled to see why Carol and Therese were attracted to each other since they were of such different ages and backgrounds and had so little in common. The story does make it clear how courageous the women were to consider living together openly at that time. Not surprisingly, Patricia Highsmith chose to publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid discrimination.

I feel the need to comment on how much all of the characters smoked, which was constantly! Carol’s teeth and fingers must have been yellow, if she didn’t already have deep wrinkles around her mouth she will soon, and her beautiful blonde hair and elegant clothes must have smelled like a dirty ash-tray. If one of them had been a smoker and the other a non-smoker, the non-smoker could never have fallen in love with the smoker… And don’t even get me started on how much they drank! Of course, this is a reflection on the time the book was set rather than on the quality of the writing and story-telling.

The Price of Salt was re-released as Carol, the same as the movie starring Cate Blanchett. I prefer the name The Price of Salt because it alludes to the flavour the character’s love for each other gives their livesĀ  and them having to pay for it. I’ll probably watch Carol sometime, and am now even keener to find other books by this author.






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