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 lives 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.