Book Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol BloomsburyAbout the Book

Therese is just an ordinary sales assistant working in a New York department store when a beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter.  Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for the first shock of love.  Therese is an awkward nineteen-year-old with a job she hates and a boyfriend she doesn’t love; Carol is a sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter.  As Therese becomes irresistibly drawn into Carol’s world, she soon realises how much they both stand to lose…

Format: Paperback (312 pp.)           Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 2015 [1952]                     Genre: Literary Fiction, Romance

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My Review

Carol was first published under the pseudonym Clare Morgan in 1952 with the title The Price of Salt. In the book’s afterword, Patricia Highsmith, writing in 1989, explains the story’s real life inspiration: a woman wearing a fur coat she glimpsed whilst working in the toy section of a New York department store shortly before Christmas in 1948.  She writes: ‘Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.’   Highsmith recounts how she was left feeling ‘odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.’

From the germ of this idea was born The Price of Salt, published under a pseudonym because by that time Strangers on a Train had been published to great success and Highsmith was now considered a ‘suspense’ writer.  Her publishers wanted more of the same and The Price of Salt was anything but.  As it happens, The Price of Salt did turn out to be a commercial success, selling nearly one million copies when it was published in paperback in 1953.  And so the story of Carol

Raised in a children’s home following a difficult upbringing, Therese has ambitions to be a stage designer.  Finding it hard to obtain openings in that profession, she reluctantly takes a job in a department store for the Christmas period.  It makes her feel trapped and she fears a future like some of the worn out, drab women she sees around her:   ‘…She knew it was the hopelessness that terrified her…the hopelessness of herself, of ever being the person she wanted to be and doing the things that person would do.’  Therese’s disillusion with her job is equalled by her dissatisfaction with her relationship with her boyfriend, Richard.    She finds she cannot return Richard’s love or relish the future together for which he hopes so fervently.  ‘She was cold, and felt rather miserable in general.  It was the half dangling, half cemented relationship with Richard, she knew.  They saw more and more of each other without growing closer.’

Therese’s first glimpse of Carol in the department store is life-changing; it awakens an overwhelming but quite unexpected attraction to this cool, stylish, beautiful woman.  When Therese initiates contact, it becomes apparent that the attraction is mutual and the two embark on a relationship that will become all-consuming and have consequences for them both.  For Therese, the relationship with Carol brings a sense of freedom and adventure.  As time goes on, it also seems to bring about a new maturity in Therese.  For Carol, a woman going through a divorce and custody battle, the relationship means agonising choices.  For them both, it means the opprobrium of society.  ‘In the eyes of the world it’s an abomination.’

It is difficult now for most of us to imagine the prejudice two women in such a relationship faced.   However, as Highsmith reminds us in the afterword, 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.’

The story is told from the point of view of Therese so Carol always remains something of an enigma, slightly distant and often unreadable.  So, like Therese, the reader, is left to try to interpret the extent of Carol’s feelings for Therese from her actions and her often opaque comments and unexplained moods.  Therese wonders, ‘Was life, were human relationships always like this… Never solid ground underfoot’. At times, it feels as if Carol is afraid of the intensity of Therese’s feelings for her, of what loving her might mean for Therese.  Unspoken thoughts, not being able to say the right words are something of a theme of the book.  ‘She [Therese] did not want to talk.  Yet she felt there were thousands of words choking her throat.’

In her foreword to my edition, the Val McDermid writes: ‘Some books change lives.  This is one of them.’  She describes how Carol, the story of a lesbian relationship, didn’t so much fill a niche as ‘a gaping void’.  It may well have been groundbreaking at the time but, in the end, Carol is simply the tender, emotional, passionate story of two people exploring the attraction they feel for each other.   I found it a wonderful book and the ending simply beautiful.

Carol is part of my TBR Pile Challenge and one of the books on my Classics Club list.  It also forms part of my From Page to Screen reading project.  I will be posting my thoughts on the comparison between the book and the film (starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) in due course.

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In three words: Passionate, stylish, intimate

Patricia HighsmithAbout the Author

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921.  Her parents moved to New York when she was six, and she attended Julia Richmond high School and Barnard College.  In her senior year she edited the college magazine, having decided at the age of sixteen to become a writer.  Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951.   The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1955, was awarded the Edgar Allen Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America and introduced the fascinating anti-hero Tom Ripley, who was to appear in many of her later crime novels.

Patricia Highsmith died in Locarno, Switzerland, on 4 February 1995. Her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll, was published posthumously a month later.

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The Classics Club TBR Challenge 2018From Page to Screen


16 thoughts on “Book Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

    1. Thanks. I really liked the film. Will be publishing my comparison with the book in the next few days (although it is a while since I saw it) but my main thought is the book gives much more of Therese’s back story.

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  1. I meant to see the film of this when it was out but didn’t get round to it. I can see why PH published under a different name, it is so different to what readers would have expected of a PH novel. Definitely a title for my expanding wishlist.

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    1. I really liked the film. I had meant to read the book before seeing it but never got around to it. It did mean I read the book picturing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (no bad thing as they were both terrific).


      1. That’s a shame and quite surprising since she couldn’t really be considered an obscure author. However, I have to say my local library is a bit the same and seems to concentrate on recent publications and popular genres rather than classics.

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      2. I feel guilty for saying this, but the libraries in my city are terrible. Most have shut and the ones that haven’t have converted so much of their space over to community hubs that there’s hardly any books left 😞

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      3. That’s terrible to hear. I do believe libraries are an underappreciated public asset. It’s one of my goals to use my local library more this year because, as your experience has demonstrated, it’s a case of use it or lose it.

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      4. Well, just out of interest I searched my local library’s online catalogue and they have quite a few Highsmith titles – no help to you I know as I’m in Berkshire. However, I did spot they have a DVD of the film version of Carol so I’m going to borrow that and watch it again. So thanks for our discussion prompting me to check 😀

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