In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

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