Revisiting a Cult Classic: Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Carol’ Inspiration ‘The Price of Salt’

“Acquired tastes are always more pleasant — and hard to get rid of,” says Carol Aird, about 100 pages from the end of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. By this point, the subtext is so obvious that her statement almost reads as a joke. Carol is a woman in her 30s who is about to be divorced, recently ended a love affair with a female friend, and has just set out on an aimless, romantic road-trip with a girl almost 15 years her junior in an era when such an adventure could cost her custody of her daughter.

Much has changed for queer people in America since the book’s publication, but this kind of smart self-awareness, combined with its obsessive level of emotional detail and surprising, convention-flouting ending, make The Price of Salt feel unexpectedly contemporary. Written nearly two decades before Stonewall (and published under the alias Claire Morgan because Highsmith didn’t want to be pegged as a “lesbian-book writer”), the novel constituted its own quiet revolution. In the hands of a writer who was just starting to make her name as an expert craftswoman of psychological thrillers, Carol and Therese Belivet — the 19-year-old New York City shopgirl whose thoughts we follow as she falls in love with Carol  — become so much more than what Therese’s boyfriend Richard dismisses as “people like that.”

You can see all this transpire in Todd Haynes’ new film adaptation Carol, out in limited release Friday. It’s a dazzling movie of stares, gazes, furtive glances, and locked eyes. But somehow, The Price of Salt (later republished as Carol) feels even more intensely visual. Its characters are always looking or being looked at, and Highsmith’s book goes deep into what’s happening underneath all that eye contact Haynes shows us between Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese.

Within the first few pages, Therese recalls her beloved former teacher Sister Alicia’s “small blue eyes always finding her out among the other girls, seeing her differently”; a few paragraph later, imagining the tortured face of a middle-aged woman whose hands she has spotted across the table, “Therese could not look.” This impotence is telling. When we meet The Price of Salt‘s protagonist, she is a passive object of other people’s interest, someone who hasn’t fully developed her subjectivity.

Therese is an aspiring set designer (in the film she’s an aspiring photographer), and behind the scenes of the novel’s love story, we watch her slowly become confident enough to really see — and exert some power over — the landscape around her. At Richard’s urging, Therese is in the midst of reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when her own coming-of-age arc is set into motion, on the day Carol steps into the department store where she works. Highsmith’s description of the moment when she and Therese first spot each other is one of fiction’s great accounts of love at first sight:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand of her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by the, Therese could not look away. She heard the customer in front of her repeat a question, and Therese stood there, mute. The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here, and though there were a number of salesgirls between them, Therese felt sure the woman would come to her. Then Therese saw her walk slowly toward the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer.

The Price of Salt is full of these vivid, lyrical passages: their first lunch date, where Therese is intoxicated by Carol’s perfume and the sound of her laughter; the first car ride they take together, through the Lincoln Tunnel to Carol’s suburban New Jersey home; much later, when they finally go to bed together and “a thousand memories and moments, words, the first darling, the second time Carol had met her at the store, a thousand memories of Carol’s face, her voice, moments of anger and laughter flashed like the tail of a comet across [Therese’s] brain. And now it was pale blue distance and space, an expanding space in which she took flight suddenly like a long arrow.”

What saves the book from becoming well-written romantic schlock, though — besides what a novelty it was at the time of its publication — is the same psychological deftness Highsmith brought to her mysteries. As her description of their first encounter suggests, Therese and Carol don’t fall in love as equals; for most of the story, Carol controls their every interaction. And there’s an anxiety that pervades every page, driven less by the vague weight of midcentury society’s views on lesbianism than by Therese’s naivety and the horrible, creeping realization that Carol will have to choose between her lover and daughter.

As in Highsmith’s other work, there are moments when The Price of Salt is weighed down by the transparency of the characters’ psychoanalytic motivations — in the rare instances when the novel does seem dated, it’s the textbook Freudian stuff that makes it feel that way. (Haynes and Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy must have thought so too, considering how little of this material made it into their adaptation.) Highsmith spends pages setting up Therese’s dysfunctional relationship with her estranged mother, apparently in order to explain why she’s so drawn to an older woman who is herself a mother, and then shows us endless interactions where Carol is putting Therese to bed or giving or a glass of milk or otherwise lovingly but firmly telling her what to do. To an almost dissonant extent, it all appears to lend credence to Richard’s insistence that romances like the two women’s “just don’t happen. There’s always some reason for it in the background.”

But that’s a small complaint, and one that’s easy to make 63 years later, when pop culture has long since overplayed the hand psychoanalysis dealt it. The Price of Salt remains a stunning novel, for both its descriptive precision and the way it uses that specificity in the service of a story that was decades before its time.

One senses just a few pages in that such an unprecedented book could only have come out of personal experience. Sure enough, in a 1989 afterword to the first edition of the novel published under her real name, Highsmith recounted conceiving it in a literal fever dream. She had been working the doll counter at a department store while waiting for the publication of Strangers on a Train, and one day she met a woman in a mink coat who made her feel “odd and swimmy in the head.” Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar suggests there’s more to the story than that, though. In a fascinating New York Times piece titled “Solving the Many Mysteries of What Became Carol,” she writes that the book “was so personal that Highsmith couldn’t live with it. One character, Therese, ‘came from my own bones,’ she wrote; the other, Carol, from her desire for the lover she’d lost” — a “beautiful, witty, reckless Maine Line socialite.”

The Price of Salt isn’t a tragedy — thankfully — but it does feel like a novel wrought out of genuine emotion of this magnitude. I can only imagine what it must have been like reading it in 1952 (or 1982, or 2002) and recognizing a vital piece of oneself in it.