When The Price of Salt was published in 1952, it was a smashing debut for author Claire Morgan. A lesbian love story set in post-war America, it was a taboo-breaking novel that sold more than a million copies. What few knew at the time was that Claire Morgan didn’t exist; she was a pseudonym for Texan writer Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, had been so popular that Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into a film with the same name. When she submitted her second novel, though, her publisher refused it — obliquely complaining that it wasn’t a “suspense story.” Lucky for us, another publisher picked up the book, and its success ensured that we’d still be enjoying The Price of Salt today.
The book’s protagonist, Therese Belivet, is young theater set designer who pays the bills with a department store day job. One day at work, she assists a beautiful woman in picking out a doll for her daughter. It’s love at first sight and Therese falls head over heels for her beautiful married customer, Carol Aird.
Obsessed, Therese pens a secret love letter, detailing her passion and sexual desire for Carol. Fear gets the better of her, though, and she substitutes a clumsy Christmas card. The “I love yous” and “You’re magnificents” she longs to write are replaced by “Salutations,” and she sends the card off in nervous anticipation. Carol calls her the next day and the two meet for coffee; their relationship begins.
The women carefully circle one another, meeting at cafes in New York or at Carol’s house. They discuss domestic matters: Therese’s oafish fiancé and his family, Carol’s soon to be divorced husband Harge and their daughter Rindy. The two women prepare food, take long car rides, and decorate a Christmas tree together. As their relationship blossoms, however, conflict with the men in their lives becomes unavoidable.
Carol’s husband is a hulk of a man who looms in the story’s background. Harge only appears two or three times in the novel, but his power over Carol is felt on every page. Despite his own unfaithfulness and their impending divorce, he demands control over her relationships. Unless she cuts off Therese, he’ll prevent her from seeing their daughter. In the book’s era, there is little Carol can do to stop him: he holds the fate of their daughter in his meaty hand.
Meanwhile, Therese’s fiancé Richard throws sullen fits as their relationship crumbles. He dismisses her feelings for Carol as a schoolgirl crush, confident that his own desire for her will bring Therese back. Richard conveniently forgets the grimness of their own relationship: their few sexual encounters were unhappy, even traumatic. Even their shared love of art is only skin deep: Richard plays at his, knowing his father’s business guarantees him a lucrative job, while Therese sacrifices and struggles to support her own art.
Eventually, both women reach the breaking point: they abandon the men and take to the road together. The pair drive across the Midwest, drinking in hotel bars, seeing the sights, and stopping at roadside stores for gifts to send back to friends. Inevitably, though, their escape is temporary: the looming conflict must eventually come to a head.
The Price of Salt is a love story between two women, but due to the era it was written in, their taboo relationship infuses the novel with tension. Angry men aside, The Price of Salt’s love story is intertwined with domesticity. The women meet as Carol shops for a child’s doll, their relationship is set in motion by Therese’ awkward Christmas card, and their domestic lives serve as camouflage for their growing love. They sit in kitchens and in bedrooms, discussing their lives as they brush their hair or change their clothes. They watch each other over drinks and shop for food and furniture together. They are rooted in a homely world and they come to know each other while navigating their way through presents, food, and the quietness of everyday life.
In one roadside shop, they debate how much salami and ham to send home. “Therese turned around, and Carol’s beauty struck her like a glimpse of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Carol asked her if she thought they should buy a whole ham.” Highsmith is an expert craftsman, and she infuses every scene with suspense. In fact, the more commonplace the scene, the higher the anxiety ratchets. Every word is carefully chosen, each chapter is carefully plotted, and only after finishing the book does the reader begin to understand the characters and what truly happened.
The novel has recently been turned into a movie titled Carol, and is set for release this October. Cate Blanchet should be a perfect match for Carol’s ethereal glamour, and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays the young Therese. If all goes well, the film should give a new generation access to a compelling story of womens’ lives and loves.
*originally published in The Stake