Reading The Rainbow is an original regular feature at Musings From Neville’s Navel. I’m a queer bookworm who loves to geek out about books and LGBTQ+ topics, so why not talk about both subjects at once?! Basically, I review books with queer characters and/or themes, discuss the pros and cons of each, and tell you which stories are worth your time!
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Genre: Romance, adult, classic
Length: 304 pages
Published by: W.W. Norton & Company
Date of publication: 1952
Soon to be a new film, The Price of Salt tells the riveting story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.
Previous Reading The Rainbow posts may be found here.
Earlier this month (in my review of Fairest), I mentioned that I’m trying to catch up on my book reviews. I mean, I NEED to catch up on my reviews. OMG MY LIST OF BOOKS TO REVIEW IS OUT OF CONTROL. So… here is a review! Later this month there will be three more reviews, including another one for Reading The Rainbow!
I read The Price of Salt because it’s been adapted – finally! note that 1952 publication date! – for the big screen. The movie, which was retitled Carol, comes out on November 20th as a limited release. Artgirl @ Alien Cows and I have been fangirling in anticipation of this movie for aaaages now so I thought, “Well, I do like to read a book before seeing its movie adaptation, so… why not see if this is at the library?!”
OMG WHAT AN AWESOME DECISION. GOOD JOB, ME. I LOVED THIS BOOK SO SO MUCH AND YOU SHOULD ALL READ IT AND I’M GONNA TELL YOU WHY.
At first glance, the plot is very simple – an older and a younger woman meet, fall in love, try to figure out their feelings for one another, and go on a road trip. But ohhhh my god there are so many layers to this book, and so much nuance, and… yeah. IT’S A VERY INTROSPECTIVE BOOK. Hardly anything happens without Therese thinking about what it must mean – but, like, not in a boring or repetitive way.
Because what Carol and Therese do matters. IT MATTERS A LOT. This story is set in the fifties, when it was extremely difficult to be queer. So yeah, it makes sense for Therese to agonize over every little detail, because people had to be much more cautious then than they do now.
I don’t want to give too much away, but there are scenes in which the main characters find out that others have been paying attention to them and their relationship, and OH MY GOD THAT REALLY RAISED THE STAKES OF THE STORY because they found out they weren’t being as discreet as they’d thought. Carol’s in the process of divorcing her husband, and if anyone finds out that she’s in love with a woman she’ll lose custody of her daughter because she would be considered unfit to parent.
I absolutely loved the use of language in this story. Old(er) books have such a distinct writing style, don’t they? I don’t mean that they are all exactly the same, but I do think that a lot of them use language very deliberately, much more deliberately than recent books do. (This is one of the reasons I adore Agatha Christie’s books so much!) I don’t want to say that this book was a slow read because I think that implies a lot of bad things, but… yeah. If I’m honest, IT WAS. The writing style forced me to slow down, take my time, and really enjoy this book, instead of wildly flipping the pages as I do with most current books.
(Speaking of older books, ALL of the characters drink and smoke A LOT. I kind of forgot how often this happens in older books… I kept expecting someone to drive their car into a ditch or something because they just kept drinking and drinking and DRINKING.)
I also really liked how this book explored what happens when two people are in a relationship and one of them loves the other more than they themselves are loved. Carol Therese definitely love each other – don’t get me wrong – but Therese is a bit more invested in their relationship, and I loved how The Price of Salt touched on that topic. It’s not something I see very often in fiction, which is weird?
Another thing I loved was the setting, both in terms of place and time. I LOVED the way Highsmith is able to say a lot with just a few descriptive words. Also, I was mildly amused because big chunks of this novel take place in New York City, Iowa, and Colorado – all places I’ve been to or even spent a lot of time in, so it was fun to read this book and be like, “Oh! I know where that is.”
This book starts just a few days before Christmas… which makes me feel like maybe I should save this review until then, but I’d really like to publish this before the movie comes out in the hope that maybe this post will inspire you to go see the movie! Anyway. UGH THIS BOOK WAS SO CHRISTMASSY AND CUTE. OH MY GOD.
There were a lot of things about Therese that reminded me of myself – not just that she’s nineteen, but that she knows what she wants to do with her life, yet has no idea how to get there. SAME HERE.
But really, I adored Carol. Cate Blanchett plays her in the movie, and every so often while I was reading, I had to stop for a moment and fangirl because whoever cast Blanchett did such a fantastic job: The descriptions had me almost believing that Highsmith wrote this character with that actress in mind.
The last thing I want to talk about is why The Price of Salt is so important. If you have any interest in LGBTQ+ literature at all – and especially in the history of it – then you need to read this book.
First of all, this was the first LGBTQ+ novel with a happy ending. Not ONE of the first. THE first. There was a great little afterword in the edition I read, and Highsmith had this to say:
“The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together.
Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated) or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.
Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as, ‘Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’ Others said, ‘Thank you for writing this story. It is a little like my own story…'”
Powerful ending, that. (Also, if I ever have a band, I should call it Homosexuals Male And Female.)
Secondly, Patricia Highsmith was… well, she didn’t use any labels for herself, but she had relationships with both men and women! At this moment in history, most of the available lesbian-themed novels were written by straight men who ended their stories with one or both of the women dead and/or heartbroken. This novel was, obviously, a HUGE improvement.
Finally, Carol and Therese are both hella feminine… and back then, a lot of people didn’t really understand that you could be a feminine lesbian or a masculine gay man. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with queer people going against the norm in terms of gender expression – in fact, I’d like to see more of this in fiction, because there are hardly any butch lesbian characters in YA – but in the fifties this wasn’t widely understood. Therese herself has a BUNCH of scenes in which she’s like, “But I’m girly… so what is even going on?!”
I would recommend this book to…
- Queer women
- People who like classics
- Those who are interested in the history of LGBTQ+ literature
- Anyone who, like me, is kind of obsessed with VINTAGE LESBIANS
- People who like slightly challenging reads
- LITERALLY EVERYONE
I LOVED The Price of Salt. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and it holds an important place in the LGBTQ+ literary canon. I love the writing style, too! The romance was amazing, too – I still want Peggy and Angie to date on Agent Carter, but in the meantime this book gives me all the warm fuzzies and gay feels that I need. The Price of Salt has been in my thoughts for days now – I keep randomly remembering how much I loved the characters, and the writing style, and the plot twists. YOU SHOULD READ IT ASAP.