The Price of Salt is a novel written by Patricia Highsmith under the pen-name Claire Morgan. The novel was rejected by Highsmith's publisher, likely because of its lesbian content, but was published elsewhere. In fact, the novel was first published in hardcover format (it was not a paperback original) in 1951, but it was not until 1952, when it was re-issued in paperback format, that it became widely read.
Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt shortly after the success of Strangers on a Train. In a foreword Highsmith wrote many years later to accompany the book's re-release by Naiad Press, Highsmith recalled that the idea for the story came to her one afternoon when she noticed a mysterious and striking woman in a department store. Highsmith became sick later that night and when she awoke from her fever dreams the next day, the story had taken form in her head. In Marijane Meaker's memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, Meaker recalls Highsmith writing at a furious speed while she was sick with what turned out to be the chickenpox.
The book was published in the UK by Bloomsbury and Penguin in 1991 under the name Carol.
The novel's two main characters are Therese Belivet, a lonely young woman, and Carol, the elegant stranger Therese encounters one day at her temporary job in a New York department store. Therese is just starting out her adult life in Manhattan, and looking for her chance to break through into her dream job as an apprentice theater set designer. Therese was semi-abandoned as a small girl by her widowed mother, who sends Therese to a Catholic boarding school. She is dating a young man, Richard, whom she does not love and does not want to sleep with.
On a long and boring day working in the toy department of the department store, Therese is struck by an elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties, whom she serves. The woman, Carol, gives her address to Therese in order to have her purchases delivered. On an impulse, Therese sends Carol a card to her home address. Carol, who is going through a difficult separation and divorce and is herself quite lonely, unexpectedly responds, and the two begin to spend time together. Therese develops a strong attachment to Carol, but she is unsure how to understand her feelings. Therese's boyfriend accuses Therese of having a "schoolgirl crush" but Therese knows it is more than that: she is in love with Carol. Carol's husband, Harge, is suspicious of Carol's relationship with Therese, whom he meets briefly when Therese stays over at Carol's house. Carol had previously admitted to Harge that she had a short-lived homosexual relationship with her best friend, Abby. Harge is furious, and takes the couple's daughter to live with him, pending the final divorce proceedings. To escape from the tension in New York, Carol and Therese take a road trip West, over the course of which it becomes clear that the feelings both women have for each other are romantic and sexual. They become physically as well as emotionally intimate and declare their love for each other.
The women are unaware that Carol's husband has hired a Private Investigator to follow them and collect any evidence that would incriminate Carol as homosexual in the upcoming custody hearings. The eerie P.I. is a typical figure in Highsmith's writing. He taps the room in which Carol and Therese first make love. Carol stops him on the road and demands that he hand over any evidence against her. The P.I. sells Carol some tapes, at a high price, but then tells her that he has already sent several tapes and other evidence to Harge in New York. Carol knows that she will lose custody and most visitation rights to her daughter if she continues her relationship with Therese. Carol leaves Therese out West and heads back to New York to fight for her daughter. She tells Therese that she cannot continue their relationship. Therese is heartbroken, but her strength of character allows her to try to rebuild her life in New York.
In court, Carol has to choose between her daughter and Therese. Carol loses badly in court, but the book's ending is unusually optimistic compared to those of lesbian pulp novels, as it suggests that Carol and Therese might stay together and be happy after all.
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