In the afterword to the most recent edition of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith describes how none of her publishers wanted her to follow the Hitchcock-approved Strangers on a Train with this “lesbian love story.” “I like to avoid labels,” she writes. “It is American publishers who love them.”
My copy would certainly prove her right–the novel’s back flap description includes the words “stalk” and “obsession,” the book is categorized under “mystery,” and the cover image is a blurry black-and-white image of a distressed-looking ingenue (you can see it in this post). None of this could be more misleading: this is a love story, not a stalker’s obsession, and the only mystery involved is for those who don’t understand how dangerous it used to be for women and men to step outside sexual boundaries in public, and how much was at stake.
Therese Belivet is a shopgirl at a large department store who dreams of becoming a set designer but lacks the funds and opportunities to do, and is starting to think she’s not quite in love with her boyfriend, Richard. In walks Carol Aird, a beautiful wife to a rich man, who shakes Therese to her core and eventually sweeps her away on a cross-country road trip. While driving from state to state in the American west, Carol and Therese realize the depth of their love for each other, but also that they are being followed by a private investigator Carol’s husband has hired to aid him in taking sole custody of their daughter in the Airds’ impending divorce. While they endure a temporary separation, Carol eventually moves into Manhattan and asks Therese to live with her, an incredibly daring move.
I can’t write this review as a lesbian reviewer might; try Terry Castle’s witty and pithy love letter to the novel instead. For me, it is a vivid picture of the culture in which Highsmith sets the novel, but more importantly, it is a beautiful love story, where the characters are both experiencing a great love for the first time. While it is tinged with tragedy and seems doomed for much of the novel, in fact Highsmith pioneers the idea of a happy ending for queer romances, and received piles of letters thanking her for doing so for decades after the novel’s publication. I read a rumor somewhere online that it’s being adapted into a film; I think it could make for an amazing one, but am also pleased to see it’s time has come.
Final question: if you’ve read the book, what do you think of the title? Does “salt” stand in here for “tears,” or for something incalculably precious? I kept waiting for Highsmith to use the phrase in the novel, but perhaps characteristically, she never did.
- Worth Reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley (readmorebooks.wordpress.com)