Before Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985), Brokeback Mountain (1997), and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), there was The Price Of Salt (1952).
Patricia Highsmith’s novel follows budding set designer Therese as she works in the doll department at Frankenberg’s during the Christmas rush. Highsmith’s New York is unforgiving, and very unlike the stereotypical literary New York. Frankenberg’s is an embodiment of everything Therese hates: the anxious parents vying over a doll with real hair (or, worse, ‘do you have the dolls that wet?’), the heaving, spluttering crowds, and her co-workers. Especially her co-workers.
Therese sees her future reflected in their lined foreheads, their creaky joints, their half-dazed look and, consequently, she is frightened and disgusted by them. Poor Mrs. Robichek.
Therese reminds me of Houlden Caulfield. I ache with melancholy for her: the orphaned girl living in New York, the tag-along boyfriend she feels colder and colder towards, the department store job she resents.
Who wouldn’t, in Therese’s situation, fall for a beguiling stranger? Carol arrives at Frankenberg’s to buy a doll for her daughter Rindy, and her eyes meet Therese’s across the room. Using Carol’s delivery address to her advantage, Therese sends her a Christmas postcard.
‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s.’
The story line creeps up on you. Before reading The Price of Salt, I knew nothing about the plot. As Therese’s visits to Carol’s country home become more and more frequent, I wondered why one or the other had not made a move, or if I was misreading the situation completely. A quick Google search told me why: Highsmith’s novel is set in the 1950’s.
It is only when the stakes are laid bare that the couple’s affections become clearer.
Deep Water (1957) is the first Highsmith novel I have read. Mel and Vic’s troubled relationship had such an impact on me that I expected a burst of violence, a psychopath, or at least a sociopath in The Price Of Salt. A crack in the facade seems imminent when, on their road trip across America, Carol’s words have an edge to them. The prospect of Therese’s romanticism crashing to the ground made me turn the pages quicker.
Highsmith railed against this kind of literary stereotyping: she even went as far as to publish The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The prospect having her own name across the cover made her wonder, ‘would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer?’
Cracks do appear, in the form of a hole chiselled into the lovebird’s hotel room wall. Similar to Deep Water, Highsmith throws a spanner into the works in the form of a detective, hired by Carol’s ex-husband in an effort to prove her an unfit mother.
‘The characters started off so flat that a steamrolled pancake might have more depth, and the book moved at the pace of a snail.’ –Bean Delphiki, Goodreads
Bean Delphiki’s review made me laugh because it is true in a sense. The characters do seem to be 2D, pale imitations of real people. They are whisps of personalities, stuck together though the idealised view of the narrator. Carol is seen through Therese’s love struck gaze, so she is faultless, beautiful, otherworldly.
Therese’s boyfriend Richard licks at the crumbs of her affection, trailing behind her burgeoning relationship with Carol. He is therefore boring and pathetic, and the reader is confused about why he is so devoted to the increasingly cold Therese.
These characters appear to be as flat as a pancake because Therese sees them as an embodiment of their most egregious quality or flaw until the end of the novel, where 1950’s American society’s homophobia trumps her idealism. Carol returns to New York and does, in fact, have her reputation sullied by her time with Therese. Richard sends Therese a letter saying, ‘ […] now the upper-most emotion I feel toward you is one that was present from the first– disgust.’ Her money dwindles.
Therese’s story is one of the quintessential coming of age trope: realising everything is not the way it seems. Relationships crumble, road trips are cut short, life happens.
It is only towards the end of the novel that Therese discovers the true price of salt.
My overwhelming emotion while reading The Price of Salt was melancholy. On melancholy, Brady and Haappala argue that, ‘The quality of the feeling resembles and overlaps with sadness, but is more refined, involving some degree of pleasure, although not as much as bittersweet pleasure.’ I think this best sums up how I feel: there is pleasure in knowing Therese and Carol have found their soul mate in each other, and there is an overlap into sadness when the reader realises they will have to hide their affections.
Highsmith handles this melancholy well. She rejects the shame that society imposed on homosexual relationships through her depiction of Carol and Therese.
“What still strikes me now,” Nagy says of the novel, “is how radical it was in terms of its overall conception-two central figures not giving a rat’s ass about sexual identity. No one frets about being gay; others fret on their behalf.” Phyllis Nagy
Even when she loses the battle to see her daughter, Carol does not shame herself or Therese, instead carving out a nook for them to live together in New York.
In the afterword to her novel, which she would only acknowledge as hers in 1990, Highsmith wrote that, ‘The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters […] Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality […].’
The Price of Salt must have been received as a beacon of hope to those in the gay community, to those who wrote to Highsmith saying, ‘We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’
One modern reviewer wrote: ‘I am doomed to die an ugly death or at least to be separated from my partner, probably violently.’ She goes on to write, ‘We are all doomed, it seems, because this is the only story American media tells about queer women.’
The Price of Salt tells the true story of homosexual relationships, namely, that they are fraught with the same difficulties as heterosexual ones: jealousy abounds, love is just as intense, and there is compromise, always compromise, and a price to pay for those that cut across class, country, and family ties.