The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
It reminded her of conversations at tables, on sofas, with people whose words seemed to hover over dead, unstirrable things, who never touched a string that played. And when one tried to touch a live string, looked at one with faces as masked as ever, making a remark so perfect in its banality that one could not even believe it might be subterfuge.
—The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith was the author of well-known suspense novels like Strangers on a Train (1950), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)—both of which have been adapted to film—and others of the “Ripliad” series.
The Price of Salt was first published in 1952, and its setting is contemporaneous. But far from falling into Highsmith’s trademark thriller category, this one is a love story—between two women. I imagine that, in those days, writing a novel like this was a bold thing for a serious, up-and-coming author to do.
Therese Belivet is nineteen, a struggling stage-designer in Manhattan, who has an unambitious boyfriend whom she is not in love with but who clings to her with tenacity. Carol Aird is an elegant and beautiful woman in her early thirties, financially well-off, and is in the middle of a divorce from her husband, Harge. At stake is their daughter, Rindy. Perfect strangers in the beginning, Therese and Carol lock eyes from across a room crowded with holiday shoppers and, at least for one of them, it was obsession at first sight. Some quick plot turns later, they become unlikely friends.
Meanwhile, Harge has won temporary custody of Rindy. To take some time away from the stress of the divorce and the battle for Rindy, Carol decides to take a road trip out West and asks Therese to come with her. Thus, the unlikely pair sets out on the road: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs… Along the way, they finally confirm their suspicion of love for each other, and fall deeper in love with each passing mile. But well into their trip, they discover that Harge has hired a detective who has been spying on them and following them on the road, in an attempt to collect evidence against Carol for the divorce case. With this discovery, Carol realizes that she must immediately return East to confront Harge and fight for Rindy. She leaves Therese behind in the middle of the country and, while apart, each gets a chance to think about the price to be paid in pursuing their relationship further.
Mercifully, and with respect for her readers’ intelligence, Highsmith includes a break-up letter which is thoughtful rather than sappy. In one part of the letter, Carol explains to Therese:
It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing—that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition.
Even in this love story—and that is what it is at its core—Highsmith displays her talent for suspense. With only a few pages left on the right side of my open book, I was still wondering how Highsmith would resolve the plot.
I thought, with a bit of a surprise, that the novel was quite well written, the story well told and unhurried. Highsmith wrote eloquently and simply, without making the words groan for seeming to try too hard. Notwithstanding the plot, there was a general lack of hostility in the tone, and the presence of possibilities. While a comparison would not be fair, the novel did remind me of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (which has a BBC adaptation of the same title).
And, no, there is no explicit description of sex between the two women. But Highsmith was able to convey the depth of the emotional and physical intimacy between her two protagonists better than if there had been that explicitness. Imagine that.
‘What do they say makes a play a classic, Therese?’
‘A classic—‘ Her voice sounded tight and stifled. ‘A classic is something with a basic human situation.’