Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

carol.jpgMy latest classic is a modern one: this month, I read Carol by Patricia Highsmith (entitled The Price of Salt on its initial publication in 1952). I’ve not seen the film, so that was nothing to do with my decision to read it; I was, however, interested in the book based on what I have read about the movie.

The eponymous Carol is a beguiling and mysterious woman who becomes a source of great fascination to Therese, a young woman working as a shop assistant when the two first meet. The novel begins with Therese sort-of-engaged to Richard but clearly not really feeling it; there is more passion in the moment when she writes a receipt for Carol than there is in any of the supposedly intimate exchanges Therese shares with Richard. I was expecting Carol and Therese’s relationship to be a grand passion but it didn’t really start out that way; Therese is clearly besotted with Carol but, it seemed to me, Carol begins their friendship merely as a distraction – something to take her mind off her ongoing divorce and custody battle. Carol is a curiously cold character who, for the first two thirds of the book, is really quite mean to Therese. I was confused by her characterisation, although not in a way which reflects badly on the writing; I think this is just evidence of how Highsmith writes her characters with tremendous nuance and ambiguity.

The relationship between Therese and Carol seems dangerous from the outset; on a drive, Therese inwardly wishes “the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that  their bodies might be dragged out together” (does this make anyone else start singing There is a Light That Never Goes Out by the Smiths?) and, a little later, when Carol makes her hot milk, Therese “drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink a potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.” There seems to be an almost wilful destructiveness in her actions and thoughts; clearly bored of her life, Therese seems to be daring the world to bring her something more fiery and complicated. Once her passion is reciprocated, her thoughts are less worrying. Embarking on a road trip across the USA made me wonder if the whole thing was heading for a Thelma and Louise-esque conclusion, but obviously nothing quite so dramatic ensues.

It’s interesting to read Carol as a historical source and think about the attitudes to sexuality which restrict Carol and Therese; Carol’s estranged husband sends a private detecting after them to ‘prove’ their relationship, as if it’s a crime. At the very least, it’s a means for him to ensure his own custody of their daughter. I rarely felt sympathy for Carol because it always seems like she knows exactly what she’s doing; although placing her affair with Therese ahead of her relationship with her daughter is perhaps romantic, it’s difficult to empathise with a character who makes that kind of decision.

I think the thing I liked the most about Carol, weirdly, was the depiction of New York; it’s a city I love to read about and to see it in different eras fascinates me. I envisaged scenes in the style of Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks, with moody lighting and secluded bars.

Basically, I enjoyed Carol but it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I think I’ll try to read some more Patricia Highsmith, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. If you’ve read this book (or seen the film), please share your thoughts in the comments!

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