I read Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt soon after finishing Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp novel Odd Girl Out (1957), so I was understandably feeling jaded and a bit guarded. Bannon’s novel, for those of you who haven’t read it, ends quite depressingly when one of the two lovers, Beth, decides that lesbianism was a mere phase for her—caused by a lack of love when she was a child, surprise surprise—and the protagonist Laura is left alone to go to New York city, where hopefully she’ll find some real queer ladies to love and hang out with. The Price of Salt begins in New York, so this more queer friendly setting made me initially hopeful. In fact, Highsmith’s well-written novel is very different from the melodramatic pulp that Bannon writes, although it does have some similar problems for contemporary readers reading lesbian novels from the 1950s.
The Price of Salt is essentially a love story, but it becomes a kind of thriller, like Highsmith’s other more famous non-queer works; the narrative turns into a chase where a private investigator follows the two women in love, Therese and Carol, around the U.S. while they are on a road trip. Therese is a woman in her early twenties who is an aspiring theatre set designer, just starting out in New York; she is working at a department store over the Christmas season to make some extra cash. She meets a striking, assertive older woman, Carol, while at work, and impulsively sends her a Christmas card. Thus begins their initially tentative relationship. After their romance finally starts to flourish on a vacation they take together, Carol’s ex-husband interrupts their new-found bliss by having the investigator trail them; Carol is in fact in the middle of divorcing him, and arranging the custody of their child. Her ex is trying to collect evidence that she is a “homosexual” to use against her in their custody battle. What’s worse is that he knows about Carol’s previous Sapphic background.
The eventual denouement of the narrative is relatively disappointing, from a twenty-first century perspective at least: Carol is forced to choose between custody of her daughter and any further contact with Therese, or any similar relationships with women in the future. Deciding she has already lost the battle, Carol gives up trying to have a relationship with her daughter. While realistic, Carol’s defeat in court with her ex-husband is devastating; however, there is evidence at the end of the novel that Therese and Carol might actually have a chance to “end up happily ever after,” a far cry from the required dead-or-married-to-a-man plot structure of other 1950s lesbian novels. I was actually expecting a more depressing ending, so I was pleasantly surprised by what Highsmith chose to do.
What bothered me about the novel instead is that I felt like both Carol and Therese were emotionally and psychologically just out of my reach as a reader. I never felt like I really got to know them, or understand their personalities, feelings, and motivations. An earlier reviewer on the lesbrary, Orange Sorbet, has a similar problem feeling like the characters were ‘real.’ The setting and atmosphere of the novel actually felt more like characters than Carol or Therese did. The smoky, eerie feeling of New York City streets at night, the sterile, lonely ambience of restaurants and department stores, and the tension and fear of being on the run are all quite clear in my mind still, even though I read the book a few months ago. Perhaps the new film version in the works, starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, will help make these two women as vivid as the exhilarating narrative and haunting atmosphere.