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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Find Carol on Goodreads

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.

Website ǀ  Goodreads

The Classics Club TBR Challenge 2018From Page to Screen


Book Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes For The ArchbishopAbout the Book

In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness.

The novel is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), and partially chronicles the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Format: ebook (306 pp.)                       Publisher: Annie Rose Books
Published: 25th January 2016 [1927] Genre: Historical Fiction, Modern Classics

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My Review

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Death Comes for the Archbishop tells the story of two priests – Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant – who are sent to establish the Catholic Church in the newly acquired territory of New Mexico.  The book is episodic in nature, almost a collection of short stories or parables, depicting their experiences and many of the characters they encounter along the way.

In fulfilling the task they have been entrusted with, and in order to carry out their pastoral duties, they are forced to travel vast distances across harsh but beautiful landscape.  I was left with a sense of awe for the courage and determination of these pioneering men, inspired by their faith to undertake such arduous and dangerous journeys, often only with a native guide, their trusty mules and simple rations.  Along the way they come across venality, immorality and corruption, sometimes by priests who have become used to running their parishes as personal fiefdoms.

One of the things I loved about the book is the depiction of the friendship between the two men, formed in their earliest days as trainee priests at a seminary in their native France.  Despite frequently being apart for long stretches of time and the fact that Latour, as the senior of the two, must often send his friend on dangerous journeys, their friendship prevails to the very end of their lives.  Despite being quite different in character – Latour ‘gracious to everyone, but known to a very few’, Vaillant a man who ‘added a glow to whatever kind of human society’ – the two men share a love of good food and wine and an unshakeable belief in their vocation.

Latour, perhaps, is more sensitive to the traditional beliefs and customs of the native Indians and their need for a certain ‘theatricality’ about the practice of their religion, with women throwing down their shawls for him to walk on, people clamouring to kiss his Episcopal ring and gaudy decoration of their churches.

The author seems admiring of the Indians attitude to their environment, lauding their sympathetic approach to the land they inhabit and which they consider sacred.  (This is contrasted with the European’s desire to ‘master nature, to arrange and recreate’.)

‘It was as if the great country was asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of the earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse.  When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; and Indian hunt was never a slaughter.  They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs.  The land, and al that it bore, they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.’

Latour too gradually falls in love with the landscape of New Mexico as this scene close to the end of the book demonstrates:

‘In New Mexico he always woke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older.  His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “To-day, today” like a child’s.’  

My first introduction to Willa Cather’s writing was through O Pioneers!, which I then followed with My Antonia, perhaps her most well-known book.  From the very start, I admired her beautiful writing and wonderful storytelling and these qualities were evident once more in Death Comes for the Archbishop.  As noted earlier, the book is episodic in nature and certain chapters read more like short stories.  One I particularly liked was December Night, in which the Bishop’s ‘dark night of the soul’ is restored by the piety of an old woman prevented by her cruel employers from practising her faith.

This book forms part of my Classics Club list and my 2018 TBR Pile Reading Challenge.

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In three words: Inspiring, engaging, friendship

Try something similar…Sick Heart River by John Buchan

Willa CatherAbout the Author

Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (Gore), Virginia, in December 7, 1873. Her novels on frontier life brought her to national recognition. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922), set during World War I. She grew up in Virginia and Nebraska. She then attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter moving to New York City for the remainder of her life. She travelled widely and often spent summers in New Brunswick, Canada. In later life, she experienced much negative criticism for her conservative politics and became reclusive, burning some of her letters and personal papers, including her last manuscript. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 73 in New York City.


Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good EarthAbout the Book

This Pulitzer Prize-winning classic tells the poignant tale of a Chinese farmer and his family in old agrarian China. The humble Wang Lung glories in the soil he works, nurturing the land as it nurtures him and his family. Nearby, the nobles of the House of Hwang consider themselves above the land and its workers; but they will soon meet their own downfall. Hard times come upon Wang Lung and his family when flood and drought force them to seek work in the city. The working people riot, breaking into the homes of the rich and forcing them to flee. When Wang Lung shows mercy to one noble and is rewarded, he begins to rise in the world, even as the House of Hwang falls

Format: Hardcover (339 pp.)           Publisher: Methuen
Published: 1948 [1931]                     Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Classics

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My Review

The Good Earth is the book from my Classics Club list that I drew in the latest Classics Club spin. My edition was published by Methuen in 1948 and is a copy I picked up in a second-hand bookshop.

I’ve been reading the book over Christmas and initially I thought that the terrible struggles of Wang Lung and his family for food and a livelihood didn’t make for a very Christmassy read. But then I’m lucky enough to be in the situation (shared I hope by a lot of you) that the most agonising decisions I have to make this festive season are whether there are enough mince pies to go round or if I can really get away with offering turkey sandwiches again. Thinking about it some more, however, it struck me that of course there are people in the world – right now – having to make agonising decisions similar to those Wang Lung faces in the book. They also are wondering where their next meal will come from, worrying about how to keep a roof over their heads, trying to eke out a living from the land, battling disease, violence or environmental disaster. In fact, this was the perfect time to read The Good Earth and remind myself of all the people in the world less fortunate than me. If that isn’t a message suitable for Christmas, I don’t know what is.

Although The Good Earth contains many moments of tragedy and hardship, I found its theme of the importance of the land, the unchanging nature of the land and its capacity for nurturing life, quite hopeful and uplifting. For instance, this description of Wang Lung and O-Lan working together in their fields:

‘He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house sometime return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth.’

Although when famine comes the family are forced to leave their farm and flee to the city to work, to beg, to steal even, the pull of the land remains strong for Wang Lung.

‘…Standing thus he felt upon his face the mildness of the evening wind and there arose within him a mighty longing for his fields.

“On such a day as this,” he said aloud to his father, “the fields should be turned and the wheat cultivated.”

“Ah,” said the old man tranquilly, “I know what is in your thought. Twice and twice again in my years I have had to do as we did this year and leave the fields and know that there was no seed in them for fresh harvests.”

“But you always went back, my father.”

“There was the land, my son,” said the old man simply.’

In pursuit of a return to their farm, Wang Lung and his wife, O-Lan, contemplate the most awful act imaginable. But surely no-one who reads this book can fail to pity O-Lan. Stolid and uncomplaining about the subservient role she is expected to adopt, she is mostly silent but when she utters they are usually words of immense wisdom. However she displays a pragmatism that is chilling at times but proves essential to the family’s survival.  For modern day readers, the treatment of women depicted in The Good Earth is difficult to accept. Sons are welcomed but daughters are considered ‘slaves’, a curse on a household not a blessing since ‘daughters […] do not belong to their parents, but are born and reared for other families’.

Wang Lung is a character it’s difficult to like because although he works hard and sacrifices a lot in order to build a sustainable livelihood for his family, he also acts with appalling selfishness at times, particularly towards the long-suffering O-Lan.  However, his belief that ownership of land is the key to the survival and prosperity of his family never leaves him.

Usually, once I’ve acquired a book I don’t read other’s reviews before I’ve written my own. I may well have read some before I purchased it but this is often months before I get around to reading the book and I’ve mostly forgotten the content of the reviews by then. In addition – thankfully – most of the reviewers I follow know better than to give too much away about a book and definitely avoid spoilers.   However, I made an exception in this case because there was a 1-star rating and review from the author Celeste Ng that really intrigued me.

Her review starts, “It’s difficult for me to explain how much I hate this book, and even harder to explain why.” Her main objections are that it perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about the Chinese and seems to have influenced a lot of people’s perceptions of China and the Chinese. I’m not sure the book deserves the criticism she heaps on it but I accept she has a point…to a point. I’m not such a naïve reader that I confuse a work of fiction with straight history and I think I’d need to read a lot more about Chinese history to make a plausible argument either for or against the views she expresses.  However, she does admit that ‘as a story of love, partnership, and sacrifice in a marriage and family, this book does well’ and I’d certainly agree with that sentiment.

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In three words: Powerful, dramatic, tragic

Try something similar…Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (because a connection to the land is a feature of this book also)

Pearl S BuckAbout the Author

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was a bestselling and Nobel Prize–winning author. Her classic novel The Good Earth (1931) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent much of the first half of her life in China, where many of her books are set. In 1934, civil unrest in China forced Buck back to the United States. Throughout her life she worked in support of civil and women’s rights, and established Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In addition to her highly acclaimed novels, Buck wrote two memoirs and biographies of both of her parents. For her body of work, Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the first American woman to have done so. She died in Vermont in 1973.

Website ǀ Goodreads


The Classics Club Spin #16

The Classics ClubHow time flies because it’s time for another Classics Club spin!

I’ve been making very little progress with my Classics Club List of late because I keep getting tempted by new releases and blog tours. So this is a great opportunity to focus on it and at least get one book from the list read before the end of the year!

The rules (courtesy of The Classics Club) are simple:

  • Go to your blog
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favourite author, re-reads, ancients – whatever you choose)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Friday, November 17th
  • That morning (17th November), we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce
  • The challenge is to read that book by December 31st, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (Not fair not listing any scary ones!)

So without further ado, here’s my spin list. My Classics Club List focused on women writers – with a few books by John Buchan thrown in for good measure. For my spin list, I’ve chosen mainly books I already own so there’s no excuse not to read whatever is selected!

  1. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
  2. The Power House by John Buchan
  3. The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan
  4. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  5. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  6. The Price of Salt (Carol) by Patricia Highsmith
  7. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
  8. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  9. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  10. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  11. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  12. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
  13. Katherine by Anya Seton
  14. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
  15. The Flowers of Adonis by Rosemary Sutcliff
  16. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  17. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
  18. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  19. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  20. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

What would you be hoping for, or dreading, if you had my list? (Personally, I’m just hoping for a short one!)


Throwback Thursday: Lady Susan by Jane Austen


Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

This week, a proper throwback! I’m sharing my review of Lady Susan by Jane Austen, a short epistolary novel thought to have been written in 1794 (when Jane Austen would have been 19) but never submitted for publication by the author and only published in 1871, years after her death. It’s a book I read as part of the Classics Club Challenge and my From Page to Screen Challenge, based around books adapted into films.  You can read my comparison of the book and the film, Love and Friendshiphere.

lady-susanAbout the Book

Lady Susan takes the form of letters between Lady Susan Vernon and her friend Mrs Johnson, between Lady Susan’s sister-law, Mrs Vernon, and her mother Lady de Courcy and Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald. Lady Susan is beautiful, flirtatious and recently widowed. The letters tell of her attempts to seek an advantageous second marriage for herself and persuade her daughter into a decidedly less attractive match.

My version was a free to download edition from Amazon.

Find Lady Susan on Goodreads

My Review

Although a juvenile work that ends rather abruptly (as if the author tired of writing it), Lady Susan has the trademark wit and ability to skewer social foibles one associates with later Jane Austen novels. Notably, the eponymous heroine is an older woman who is by turns scheming, selfish, unscrupulous and conducting an unsuitable relationship with a married man. Lady Susan has no compunction about freeloading from relatives, telling falsehoods or manipulating others. Not exactly the typical heroine of a romantic novel! However, Austen manages to make the reader admire Lady Susan, if not for her morals, for her independent spirit and sheer determination to live life to the full.

The one aspect of Lady Susan’s character that gives the reader pause for thought is her awful treatment of her daughter, Frederica, whom she describes as “a stupid girl” with “nothing to recommend her”. In fact, Frederica is a rather charming young girl but suffers in Lady Susan’s eyes because of her “artlessness” when it comes to capturing a man. When Frederica resists her mother’s plan for her to marry the brainless Sir James, Lady Susan congratulates herself on her maternal affection in not insisting on the marriage, remarking that she will merely make Frederica “thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him”.

Lady Susan has a fitting partner-in-crime in her friend, Mrs Johnson, who advises Lady Susan to pursue Reginald de Courcy on the grounds that his father is “very infirm, and not likely to stand in your way long”. Mrs Johnson herself has the misfortune to be married to a man “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”   Only Mrs Vernon is able to see through Lady Susan’s duplicity: “Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.”

Lady Susan succeeds in capturing a husband as does Frederica, although one suspects that Frederica will find more happiness in matrimony than her mother.

Although I enjoyed the book, it does end rather abruptly and the limitations of an epistolary novel mean the characters are never fully fleshed out. However, for fans of Jane Austen, it is of interest as an early indicator of her literary potential

In three words: Witty, engaging, sprightly

Try something similar: Emma by Jane Austen

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JaneAustenAbout the Author

Jane Austen is one of the most widely read and historically important novelists in English literature famed for her realism, wit and biting social commentary.