23. ‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith

If there’s one thing Carol by Patricia Highsmith does particularly well, it’s create atmosphere. The lead character, Therese, seems to feel both distanced from and troubled by her own feelings; Carol’s protective exterior is broken down through chinks in her dialogue; and the plot takes a rambling, almost chaotic turn which reflects the feelings of powerlessness the leading characters experience. So much of this book feels just compellingly real (and that may have to do with its semi-autobiographical nature).

carol patricia highsmith

Therese works in the doll department of a department store in 1950s New York. She has a boyfriend, Richard, and a fledging career in stage design. One day a woman comes into the department store and, spotting her across the shop floor, Therese’s life is changed forever. As she finds herself increasingly drawn to this spirited, damaged woman – and away from the dissatisfactions of her own life – how will Carol and Therese’s love survive in a world that is deeply prejudiced against them?

Highsmith originally published this book as The Price of Salt, under a pseudonym because of its subject matter. She really did work in a doll department of a department store, and she was inspired to write this book after a captivating woman came to her counter and bought a doll. Highsmith said,

“I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook.”

The novel has since become a huge success, especially because it defies many stereotypes about lesbianism. The story itself beautifully combines realistic drama and scene-setting with moments of reflection and philosophy. For example, there’s a lovely contrast drawn between disposability (we can grow more wool, we can make another kite) and permanence (the love between the two lead characters). There’s also a profoundly emotional conversation between Therese and one of her friends that could probably bear several rereads for its complexity. I loved Therese’s always slightly disconnected tone of voice, and how it changes so sharp clarity when she thinks about Carol. Ultimately, the book boils down to this: will you cover up your desires for the sake of ‘public decency’, or will you refuse?

As for the story, Carol and Therese are put in sometimes fairly outlandish situations, especially when they go on a cross-country driving trip together and make a shocking discovery. I thought that the character of Richard was delightfully deluded – he seems so sure of his position in Therese’s life that even when she explicitly tells him what she does (and doesn’t) want, he refuses to believe it. This goes some way to showing how women’s voices are repeatedly squashed during the story, and how much louder they have to speak to be heard.

This is a fascinating, atmospheric novel, which builds an impossible situation around a pair of thoroughly believable characters and gives them an ending that you probably won’t expect. I also highly recommend watching the film afterwards – it’s pretty excellent.

“I know what they’d like, they’d like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.”

Have you read this book or seen the film? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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