Patricia Highsmith is mythologised as a callous misogynist, riddled with internalised homophobia. In The price of salt (republished and adapted for film as ‘Carol’) two women fall in love, break free of husbands and boyfriends, and get a happy or at least hopeful ending – highly subversive in the early 1950s. This was Highsmith’s second novel, initially rejected by her publishers due to the content, so she negotiated to have it published under a pseudonym. This determination to have her lesbian romance in print doesn’t exactly scream ‘internalised homophobia’ to me.
Romance isn’t the right word of course. While there’s the prolonged delicious tease of Carol and Therese’s early meetings and their brief-taste-of-freedom roadtrip, the shadow of Carol’s custody battle for her daughter with her ex-husband looms ever darker: a very real issue for lesbian mothers, of whom the law took a dim view to say the least. Carol fights not against the law, but shame. She refuses to be ashamed, and rejects the prevailing morality that says she must choose between her daughter and her lover. Again, I’m not getting a huge internalised homophobia vibe here.
Story, social context and Pat’s personal issues aside, it’s just a beautifully crafted novel. The prose is so lean; every detail and nuance counts. So much is held back between the two women (and between author and reader), the tension briefly interspersed with intense joy, tenderness, grief, anxiety. The pace slows and quickens perfectly, the imagery is haunting, Carol’s gorgeously infuriating character unforgettable.