A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breaking out in the regimented 50's


I picked up Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt on my Kindle because of all the praise the film Carol, an adaptation of the novel, received at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Feeling a little impatient that I'd have to wait several months for the general release of the film, I figured in the meantime I could at least grab up the book that provided the source material. And, in the end, I'm glad I did, as it was a thoughtful and enjoyable reading experience. Here are a few quick observations:

While the book ultimately is a lesbian love story, it takes its time with this aspect, with the first two-thirds of the book basically describing an intense friendship. Interestingly, this was probably due to the 1950's setting. I'm wondering if many lesbians during that period didn't even realize they were lesbians at first, because there wasn't yet an easily recognizable social structure in place that included gay and lesbian relationships as a perfectly respectable category to place oneself.

I liked the fact that Highsmith, who was a very popular writer of hard-edged thrillers at the time (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) didn't work too hard to convince us to like the sophisticated, often aloof Carol character as much as young Therese does. It was enough for the author to credibly and believably show us that Therese did so.

I also liked that the young Therese, even as she was experiencing a new sexual awakening as the story progressed, still maintained affection, and some attraction, for some of the young men in her sphere. In doing that, the book intelligently demonstrated that life can be messy and complex at times. Therese was discovering herself, yes, but it didn't mean all her past feelings were misguided or a lie.

Though not intended as such when it was written, the book also functions as a fascinating little time capsule about life in the 1950's. It was fun to read about how people of various social standings lived, worked, and played in 1950's New York City and its environs. And during Carol and Therese's road trip, we get to see 1950's life in other parts of the country, as well. You'll probably smile at how involved it was to make or receive a long-distance phone call back then!

Some parts of the book were a little poetic and abstract for my taste, though others might like them. For instance, Therese gains an intense insight about Carol when she views an old painting in a library, a stodgy posed portrait depicting someone who coincidentally looks very much like Carol. I'm still not sure what the insight was, or why an old painting would induce it, but it was a very big deal for Therese when it occurred. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on what that was all about. Thankfully, for me at least, these abstract, vaguely-described moments don't overwhelm the book by any means.

Several times during the book, I came up with my own motivations for the characters' actions, sometimes quite different from the ones Highsmith relates to us. This was probably due to the nicely complex characters and situations. For example, near the end, Therese feels estranged from Carol and goes to a cocktail party with her theatre colleagues. There she meets a famous stage actress and there's an obvious mutual attraction. Therese weighs things for a moment and then rejects the attraction to the actress, because, as related by Highsmith, Therese realized it would be no more than a superficial relationship if she pursued it, and realizes she'd rather salvage the deep and meaningful relationship she had with Carol. That was fine, but I also came up with this: Therese had put distance between herself and Carol because she was in part trying to distance herself from her inconvenient discoveries about her sexuality, but when that sexuality reared itself up again when she found herself attracted to the actress, she probably admitted to herself that her attraction to women would now always be an overt part of her, so she might as well go back to the one woman she really cared about and embrace the whole thing. Anyway, that was a take that occurred to me.

I'll stop now, as there are plenty of other reviews out there (at Amazon alone) if more details and opinions about this interesting little book are desired. I'll just add that I'm very glad I read this off-the-beaten-track novel (an off-the-beaten track novel for me, anyway, as you can see from the types of books I usually review at this site) and that I'm looking forward to the film even more now.

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