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The Price of Salt

The Price of Salt - Patricia Highsmith This book is supposed to be a cult classic, and one thing I’ve learned about cult classics is that from the outside it’s often hard to see the appeal. So it went here: I don’t consider this a bad book, but it didn’t do much for me.

Therese is on her own at age 19 in mid-20th-century New York City, an aspiring set designer working in a department store, and halfheartedly dating a boy who wants to marry her. All that changes when she meets Carol, a soon-to-be-divorced 30-something mother; for Therese is it love (or at least obsession) at first sight. The two quickly become involved, and Therese throws herself into the relationship with Carol to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The Price of Salt isn’t quite what I expected. It’s a strange sort of love story, in that it’s hard to see what either of these women sees in the other (well, Carol presumably sees someone who adores her at a time when she needs that, but there’s not much here for a reader to invest in). And the famous happy ending isn’t all that happy – though, okay, that’s as good as it gets for a lesbian novel published in 1952. Yes, it appears that the couple is still together at the end. But they're not all that great a couple; by the end it seems like Therese should have outgrown Carol's controlling, quasi-mothering attitude, and Carol is still on the rebound. To make matters worse, Carol loses custody of her daughter as a result of the relationship.

At any rate, there’s nothing seriously wrong with this book: the pacing, characterization, and writing style are all fine. Therese is rather melodramatic – the girl has an existential crisis within the first 20 pages – but then, she is 19. The time period comes to life fairly well, complete with people smoking everywhere and receiving letters in every city they visit on vacation. But nothing about the book stands out to me, either, and it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the characters’ heads, even Therese’s. If you want a well-written story of love and obsession between women, I recommend reading something by Sarah Waters before trying this.