The questions of lesbian romance in The Price of Salt

The Price of SaltThe Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Rating: 4/5 stars

The Price of Salt asks a lot of questions:

  • What does lesbian romance look like?
  • Are there happy endings for queer relationships?
  • Do adult women still have romantic attraction to each other?
  • How do you know you’re attracted or in love with someone?
  • Can you be a grown up and queer?
  • Does romantic love formed before growing up or major life events continue after them? Or do we change so much to make it unstable?
  • Can femme and femme romance be a thing? Or do queer relationships need to mirror heteronormative gender roles?

These questions are both old — The Price of Salt was published in 1952 — and sadly many still relevant. During this time, most lesbian romances were pulp fiction. This was the time that defined the trope called Bury Your Gays, where being queer was so pathologized that gay characters ended up dead, either by homicide or suicide by the story’s end. Many lesbian books featured May-December romances where a young girl was lured by her teacher, mentor, etc., seduced by this evil older lesbian, then fixed as the older one dies.

The Price of Salt opens like one of these with 19-year-old Therese falling for an early 30s housewife named Carol. Therese who just thinks Carol is the most interesting woman in the room, and someone who she must spend all her free time with. However, Highsmith — a queer woman herself — wrote this to subvert those tropes and genres. While known for her tragically unhappy endings, Highsmith ends The Price of Salt a happy note.

I saw the movie Carol, based on the book, in 2016. The film mostly follows the book to its true form. Therese has a slightly different profession, a couple characters are combined, and their road trip is condensed, but otherwise, if you’ve seen Carol, you know what will happen.

While Therese meets Carol almost immediately, their romance takes a while to emerge. Therese must deal with realizing her feelings are romantic in nature. (She starts off dating a man, who wants to marry her, and thinking she’s just a straight woman who doesn’t like sex with men.) But it’s obvious to a modern reader that Carol is only the most interesting woman ever because Therese is in love with her.

Narrated by Therese in third person, the reader takes the journey with her from her unassuming youth to a grown woman who knows what she wants. And what she wants is the woman she’s in love with. Usually, in pulp lesbian books, the younger woman realized part of growing up was shedding her queer feelings and marrying a man. There is a bildungsroman hidden in The Price of Salt. But the bildungsroman is about Therese coming to terms with her feelings for Carol, accepting that she’s a lesbian, and being confident in choosing Carol.

Early on Therese runs through these thoughts about Carol and loving women, and they struck me as such common queer lady thoughts. In fact some it directly reminded me of my own girlfriend’s musings on when she met me and hadn’t realized she was queer.

“Was it love or wasn’t it that she felt for Carol? And how absurd it was that she didn’t even know. She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that. Yet the way she felt about Carol passed all the tests for love and fitted all the descriptions.”

This is the first time Therese acknowledges that her feelings for Carol are more than just friends. She questions her queerness, not in her love, but in how she and Carol appear. They don’t fit stereotypes of one woman being the “man” in the relationship. Carol and Therese are both utterly femme, and they both are comfortable in the clothing and trappings they choose for themselves.

Clothing continues to be a theme throughout the book with Therese first letting other dictate her styles, then just Carol, and finally she becomes a grown up who chooses her own clothing. Though she never had much money, and the final outfit we see her in is a black dress she spent too much money on, but felt suited her adult personality the best compared to the rest of her wardrobe.

The best part of The Price of Salt is definitely the road trip that kicks off the second half of the book. Having seen the film, I found myself in a rush to see the two women finally admit and consummate their love. I knew it was coming. I knew Therese feelings would be returned, and I also knew The Price of Salt ended on a happy note. I did wonder if I would’ve put the book down earlier had I not had these insights. Would I have gotten frustrated and assumed they were either not going to get together at all or going to end up miserable? Especially in the moments where Highsmith’s writing grew dense around the sometimes fog of Therese’s brain.

But I do love a road trip.

The road trip serves as lessons around growing up and shedding their former lives for both Therese and Carol. The distance gives Therese the final excuse she needs to dump Richard and reject Dannie, who’s Therese’s last moment of realizing yep, she’s super gay. Carol comes to gripes with the fact that she’s lost her daughter Rindy in the custody battle of her divorce. In super creepy moments, Carol’s ex sends a private eye to spy on the women and record their conversations and sex.

Carol does initially choose Rindy over her relationship with Therese. This is a great way to show how lesbians can make good parents, and how they can love their children. Which sadly, is still in question or people like US VP Pence likes to question every other month in his legislation hopes. Carol will do anything for her daughter, and there’s no other choice Highsmith can give to Carol.

By the end, Therese has options. She knows who she is and what she desires in life. Therese even meets another lesbian, a famous actor, who’s interested in her. But she realizes that Carol is the woman she loves. She chooses to be with Carol and Carol with her. I only wish this happy ending wasn’t still incredibly rare in queer relationship in media.

“It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.”

Note: If you’re looking to learn more about the history of lesbians and lesbian portrayal in media, I highly recommend Lillian Faderman’s work. She’s considered the founder of LGBTQ studies in academia. I’ve read a few of her books and found them very approachable. And yes, Carol is a great film.

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