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!

Some Glowing Thoughts About Sense and Sensibility

senseI spend a lot of time talking about how much I love Jane Austen’s Persuasion; it’s so beautiful and compact and Frederick Wentworth. I read all of Austen’s novels when I was in the sixth form, studying Northanger Abbey with my favourite teacher of all time, the legendary Dr Woodman. I don’t even want to go into how many times I’ve tried to find her on Google in the last 15 years. Since then, Persuasion has maintained an unassailable position as my number one and I’ve reread it a handful of times. I’ve also reread Pride and Prejudice more than a few times, and I’ve taught both of these at school too.

It occurs to me, however, that I’ve neglected Austen’s other novels since first reading them so long ago (although they still seem so familiar that it’s hard to believe I haven’t read them for nearly half my life). In my quest to have the full collection of the beautiful Penguin English Library editions of classic novels, I recently bought Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey at the lovely Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, here in my beloved adopted motherland of West Yorkshire. I had no particular intentions of reading them immediately; I have, after all, an ever-increasing TBR shelf and really just wanted them to add to my collection. But I idly picked up Sense and Sensibility while hiding from a small child who was trying to make me pretend to be one of the Paw Patrol, and I was hooked. Although I did still have to play Paw Patrol.

I think Sense and Sensibility would be widely regarded as the poor relation of Pride and Prejudice; it’s certainly the less famous of the two, appears far less frequently on exam book lists and is less regularly adapted for the screen. The plotlines of the two novels are undoubtedly similar; both feature sisters forced to seek good marriages to make up for their family’s relative poverty, and there are a number of other similarities, most notably the resemblance between Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and consequently the actions of Brandon and Darcy.

One reason for Sense and Sensibility‘s lower profile is, I think, the absence of a Darcy character. Although Austen gives us Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, neither is as attractively compelling as Darcy, or as prevalent throughout the novel; Edward, indeed, disappears for about the middle 200 pages. And he’s a bit dull. Pride and Prejudice came two years after Sense and Sensibility, so I wonder about the extent to which the more famous work is a rewrite of its predecessor. It is known that Elizabeth Bennet was Austen’s favourite among her heroines, but, while rereading Sense and Sensibility, I developed a strong love of Elinor Dashwood; she is smart and sharp, but not as snarky and full-of-herself as Elizabeth, preferring to internally roll her eyes at the antics of those around her than to outwardly mock them.

Maybe Pride and Prejudice is so familiar to me that I take for granted how good it is, whereas I seem to have forgotten how enjoyable Sense and Sensibility is and liked it all the more as a result. It made me laugh out loud more than once, and I took particular pleasure from the awfulness of the Steele sisters, the Palmers and Lady Middleton. Austen seems to take a real delight in exposing the frivolous concerns of the upper classes, foregrounding the good sense of her heroines; even melodramatic Marianne is wonderful in her fundamental inability to behave appropriately in society. What Austen does particularly well in Sense and Sensibility is highlight the downright boredom and monotony of late 18th century life, especially if you lacked the financial wherewithal to have a say in your own activities. As a hardcore antisocial misanthrope, I would never have survived the marriage market of Regency England (I was, frankly, lucky to survive the modern version).

I got so much pleasure from rereading Sense and Sensibility and now fully intend to reread the rest of Austen’s novels, particularly Emma, which has always been my least favourite; maybe finally coming back to it will allow me to think of it more affectionately.

Little Miss Wildeonmyside on BabyLit (aka the best kids’ books ever)

babylit pile.jpgI’ve not blogged about children’s books before but I feel an increasing urge to do so in order to compose some kind of love letter to the BabyLit series. If you are a lover of the classics and have a small person in your life (or have friends who do and you’d like to show off how cultured you are), you need BabyLit.

The BabyLit books are beautiful and incredibly cool board books, which makes them ideal for encouraging a grabby-handed baby to memorise the names of all the Bennett sisters, and equally perfect for a three-year-old who has recently become obsessed with the game ‘School for Cuddlies,’ in which the full troop of soft toys are educated in important topics like the flowers in The Secret Garden and the noises made in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I have been collecting these books since my daughter was a baby; it has become something of a running joke in my house that these books are clearly for me and not, in fact, her. The afore-mentioned game has changed this, because she can easily pick up the concepts in the books; in most of them, there is very little text on each page, making it easy for a little one to begin to recognise short words, letters and numbers. Jennifer Adams does a brilliant job of breaking down classic works like Moby Dick and Don Quixote into simple concepts, while still maintaining the spirit of the traditional texts.

Juno BabyLit.jpg

Aside from this, they are just obscenely beautiful books. Alison Oliver’s artwork is insanely gorgeous; I would like to wallpaper my house in her illustrations. Or have them tattooed on my face or something. I would sincerely like throw cushions, curtains, perhaps car stickers with these pictures on. People need to see the beauty.

I am that person who buys new babies books and I always like to include something from BabyLit. Usually Dracula. This one is my favourite because of how it takes a creepy adult novel and uses its key concepts without scaring small children or undermining Stoker’s novel. This one is a great example of why BabyLit books are the Toy Story of children’s publishing; fun and entertaining for tiny humans, equally fun and entertaining for the parents.

In case all this has whetted your appetite, you can already pre-order the next in the series – Les Misérables and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and if you want to be as cool as me, you have already done so.

Just to make it clear, I have paid for every BabyLit book in my house and am writing this for no other reason than that I bloody love these books and I want the people who make them to make millions and win a Nobel Prize.

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2016 Classics Challenge: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy


The first book I finished in 2016, and my first for the 2016 Classics Challenge, is Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. To give a bit of background to my complex relationship with Mr H: I was forced to read Jude the Obscure at university, hated it, fell asleep in my seminar and swore off Hardy for life. A lot of time later, I decided it was time to rethink my attitude and read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and it blew my mind; I was so absorbed in poor, poor Tess’ story and the book now belongs firmly on my list of Crucial Books for Women to read, along with The Handmaid’s Tale and, as of last year, everything Louise O’Neill ever writes, probably including shopping lists.

Anyway, at the start of 2015, I read all of what I consider to be the Hardy canon, but my Victorian binge fizzled out after a couple of months, when I was a couple of chapters into Under the Greenwood Tree. Back then, it wasn’t grabbing me, so I put it back on the shelf to return to another day.

greenwoodAs any reader of Victorian novels will know, the writers of that period often showed a deep desire to represent largely incomprehensible local dialects in their writing; I live in Yorkshire, but can confirm that even people from the exact place Wuthering Heights is set do not understand anything Joseph says. Hardy sets a large number of his novels in the fictional county of Wessex, which is roughly based on Dorset, and he writes the dialogue of his rural characters using dialect; this is something that I always find awkward to read, in any novel, but you do get used to it as you start to identify the characters’ individual voices. I usually find myself just going along with it. The pattern in Hardy’s novels tends to be that simple, rural folk speak in dialect while the primary characters have more easily recognisable speaking styles, and that’s the case here.

Set in the countryside, Under the Greenwood Tree concerns itself with pastoral matters; the first section of the novel is devoted to a group of amateur musicians politely negotiating their right to continue to perform in the local church on a Sunday, having been displaced by the new girl in town, Fancy Day, and the new reverend. In his more extended works, Hardy uses rural conflicts like this to show a way of life gradually receding, or to compare with wider themes like gender roles, but Under the Greenwood Tree is, I think, too slight to be an appropriate forum for these ideas.

What is notable here is the ways in which Under the Greenwood Tree seems to act as a template for Far From the Madding Crowd, published two years later. Pretty much as soon as she moves to the village, Fancy Day attracts the attentions of three men, but, while Bathsheba is tortured by these attentions and far more comfortable just being by herself, Fancy loves the attention; she is vain and superficial, at one point refusing to lean out of her window to kiss her supposed fiancé, who has walked miles to see her in the rain, because she doesn’t want to get her hair wet. Hardy’s disdainful attitude towards his own heroine seems obvious to me; Fancy is so vapid and shallow, caring only that everyone is looking at her all the time, and Hardy’s skill in creating rounded female characters so immense, that her characterisation cannot be accidental.

Under the Greenwood Tree is funny in that way that Victorian novels are: usually through pointed barbs made by the narrator. It would provide a handy primer for anybody new to Hardy, although, if you’re seeking a taster, I would recommend Two on a Tower; it’s similarly short (Under the Greenwood Tree is just short of 200 pages, while Two on a Tower is about 220) but far more affecting. Alternatively, Far From the Madding Crowd has basically everything you could ever want in a novel (unless you’re really into dinosaurs or helicopter crashes).