Carol: the controversial book that inspired an amazing movie

Patricia Highsmith was considered to be one of the world’s top fifty crime writers and produced Strangers on the Train

CarolPatricia Highsmith was considered to be one of the world’s top fifty crime writers and produced Strangers on the Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley, amongst many others. The Talented Mr Ripley was a successful film, nominated for an Oscar in 1999.

In 1952 the novel Carol, was launched as The Price of Salt under a pseudonym, as her Publishers at that time, rejected it because the story was about a lesbian relationship. They were trying to protect her image as a celebrated crime fiction writer.  It was eventually taken up by a small publishing house and sold nearly one million copies in the United States alone when it came out in paperback in 1953. Patricia Highsmith died in 1995.

I believe this novel was ahead of its time as the moral ambiguity of the 1950’s was very different to the 1990’s when alternative relationships began to be accepted by mainstream society. The novel was republished in 1991 in the US with an afterword by Highsmith herself and was warmly received by lesbians the second time around. The film Carol starring Cate Blanchette was released recently and reviewed by ROK’s Flicks here.

The story begins in a large department store, where a shop assistant, Therese, is working part time supporting herself and her ambitions to become a successful set designer. We begin to feel the hopelessness of her situation through her interactions with some of her colleagues and the dismal and repetitive non-challenging environment in which she works. Therese is dating Richard, a demanding and spoilt young man who would like to make their relationship more permanent. However, Therese, although fond of Richard, does not feel inclined to do so.

One day, a beautiful woman walks into Therese’s Toy department looking to purchase a doll for her small daughter and makes eye contact with Therese who is overawed by Carol’s presence and beauty.  Carol purchases a doll and leaves the store forgetting to take her receipt with her.  As the doll is being delivered, Therese decides to take the receipt to Carol’s home in the hope that she and Carol might get to form a friendship.  Carol invites her in for a drink and discovers that Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband and is lonely and unhappy.  They begin by having lunch and Therese visits her often, becoming more and more in love with Carol who does nothing to discourage the friendship. Carol eventually suggests that the two of them go away for a couple of weeks holiday and Therese is only too happy to agree. Their relationship begins to become sexual, which is never described in

Carol invites her in for a drink and discovers that Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband and is lonely and unhappy.  They begin by having lunch and Therese visits her often, becoming more and more in love with Carol who does nothing to discourage the friendship. Carol eventually suggests that the two of them go away for a couple of weeks holiday and Therese is only too happy to agree. Their relationship begins to become sexual, which is never described in

Their relationship begins to become sexual, which is never described in detail, but left to the reader’s imagination.  Interestingly, the younger Therese is certain that her feelings are natural, while Carol, struggles with the morality of their situation and the ramifications it will have on her attempt to retain part-time custody of her daughter.

Carol receives notice that her husband is going for full custody and her solicitor advises Carol that she must end her relationship with Therese if she hopes to retain the right to have her daughter with her for holidays and weekends.

This novel flows well and gives a good insight into the struggles gay and lesbian couples would have had back in the 1950’s to exercise their right to lead their lives openly without negative judgements being inflicted upon them. It also describes beautifully a picture of 1950’s America, the depressing life of ordinary working people and the superficial glamour of the up and coming, middle classes.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith is available now from Dymocks.

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  1. Toni Kirkpatrick

    Saw the movie, haven’t read the book. I liked the movie, bit slow in parts. Interesting to realise what happened to lesbians back in the 50s, lost custody of her daughter. Cate Blanchett was great as was her costar, can’t remember her name.

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