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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Book Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

This was originally published under a pseudonym in 1952 as The Price of Salt. Highsmith's mainstream publishers didn't want a lesbian novel and so it was finally published by a small press. When it came out in paperback a year later it sold almost one million copies in America. The edition I have includes a foreword by Val McDermid and an afterword by Highsmith herself, added in 1989.

I loved this novel. Although it's almost sixty years old the emotions are still the same. Those are universal and Highsmith touches on them with such a deft hand that you can be forgiven for wishing the book was double or even ten times the length it actually is. I certainly didn't want it to end. The book deals with a sales assistant, Therese, who is working at a department store to earn a little money before Christmas. A woman comes in to buy a doll for her daughter and suddenly Therese's life changes. The woman, Carol, is in the midst of a divorce battle but much of the action hinges on how far her estranged husband will go to get full custody of Rindy.

It's easy in a modern, more accepting (though in some cases not accepting enough) world to be distanced from the struggles faced by previous generations who just wanted the opportunity to love each other. If you've read too many books around this theme then Carol may not appeal to you but it's not just a story about unacceptable love: it's also a joy to read. Highsmith's prose is lusciously fluid, bringing out the right level of detail without over-describing anything. Some of the most memorable scenes actually don't involve the two lovers. During the first chapter Therese encounters Mrs Robichek, a woman struggling to live day to day. I found this portrait so poignant (and she's referred to later in the novel as well) that it stuck with me for days afterwards.

Perhaps the novel doesn't develop the character of Carol as well as it could have but this is primarily Therese's story, Therese's reaction to Carol. We know what frustrates Therese about Carol, what attracts her to her, why she's willing to believe bad of her on occasion. And, in that respect, Highsmith created quite a novel. I do love it and I went into it thinking I was going to love it. That might have biased my opinion in its favour but I will certainly be reading it again in the future.

I read this book for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011 - see sidebar for details.


Brighton Blogger said...

That's funny: I've always wanted to read The Price of Salt and never realised that I've got it on my shelves... it's just got a different title! Will try and read Carol soon, you certainly make it sound extremely good!

CharmedLassie said...

Ah, I'm glad I helped you out there! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.