[I thought I would take a break from my Darfur diaries and bring you a proper review for a change. I’ve read a few novels so far during my time away – Daddy’s Girl by Margie Orford, The Lost Boy by Aher Arop Bol, The Coroner’s Lunch and Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotteril. But it’s Carol by Patricia Highsmith that I want to talk about, and I think you’ll soon see why.]
Patricia Highsmith is best known for her crime fiction and the Ripley series in particular. Carol, by contrast, is a romance involving two women. Originally published in 1952 under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt, the novel developed from a real incident that happened when Highsmith was 27 years old and working as a temp at the toy department of Bloomingdales. A beautiful woman, early 30s, walked in to buy a toy for her daughter, Highsmith was totally smitten and even tracked her down to her house in New Jersey (where she watched her to get more detail for her novel). That’s where the incident ends and where Highsmith’s imagination (and probably life experience) takes over.
In the novel, Therese Belivet is a 19-year old aspiring set designer who takes a temporary job at the toy department of an upmarket New York department store. There she meets Carol, a beautiful 30-something woman in the midst of a difficult divorce who has come to buy her daughter a Christmas present. As Val McDermid says in the Foreword:
“There’s an instant spark of attraction between them but neither knows quite how to react. They’re drawn to each other, trying for friendship, but unable to resist the deeper attraction. Their flirtation with danger and desire makes for almost unbearable tension.
To take her mind off her enforced separation from her daughter, Carol persuades Therese into a road trip, where they eventually become lovers with a flourish of understated eroticism. What they don’t know is that a private investigator unleashed by Carol’s husband is hot on their heels. And of course, the revelation of their secret contains the seeds of its destruction. As in the best of thrillers, it seems as if everything worth having is lost forever.”
After a slow start, I was soon hooked by the narrative and by the end I had to stay up late to find out just how Highsmith got to her apparently happy ending. I found it a really good novel – simple and yet complex, engaging, emotionally intense but also accessible. As McDermid comments, it has the drive of a thriller and the imagery of a romance. After I’d finished, there was the added pleasure of finding out more about Highsmith’s life from various book reviews and speculating to what extent the experiences in the book mirrored her own life.
There’s something naive about Therese, who grew up essentially as an orphan even though her mother is still alive. Therese lives most of the time in her imagination and as she and Carol embark on their road trip, it’s painful to see how vulnerable and anxious Therese is as she’s driven by this overwhelming yearning for her new friend. When Therese idealises Carol and falls head over heels in love with her, Carol is by turns loving, controlling and almost sadistic as she tries to get Therese to relate to her as she really is and not as Therese imagines her to be.
Then there’s Richard, Therese’s fiancé who doesn’t really appear to love Therese at all. When he realises that he’s losing her to Carol he writes a series of letters in which he tries to convince himself that Therese will get over this adolescent crush on another woman and come back to him. But, as Therese says, when they’re together there’s this impenetrable barrier between them. It’s as if there is a block of wood in the air between them and Richard is unable to appreciate what it is that Therese is experiencing while she in turn is tortured by shame when she is with him at her attraction to Carol .
I was looking for a paragraph that shows the love that Therese feels towards Carol but skimming through it again now, I see that much of the time what Therese is feeling is anxiety. Carol is controlling, her moods change quite abruptly and yet Therese is so desperate for recognition, acceptance, belonging, love.
One of the reviewers comments that Carol is “full of tremor and threat and of her [Highsmith’s] peculiar genius for anxiety”. Perhaps that connects up to what Highsmith’s biographer, Joan Schenkar, says when she describes Highsmith as our “most Freudian of novelists”. Apart from the obvious dark side of human nature which Highsmith mines with great skill in her Ripley novels, it’s the riddle of anxiety, which as Freud says, casts “a flood of light upon our whole mental life”. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that Carol represents a mother-figure to Therese but it’s fascinating (to me anyway) to consider Therese’s feelings in the light of psychology and to see how her challenge in growing up is to move from seeing Carol as an all-good mother-figure to a real person with her own feelings and insecurities.
I’m sure that the Schenkar biography will be very interesting but I’m not sure that I want to read that much more of Highsmith’s life. I really didn’t enjoy the movie of The Talented Mr Ripley and I prefer my crime fiction to have some sort of moral compass. From what I’ve read of Highmsith’s life so far, I feel sad that so much of her energy seemed to be channelled into meanness, cruelty and deception whereas the loving feelings which find expression in Carol, had to be, as Winterson put it, hidden in plain sight. But then we also have to remember that being gay in 1950 was considered either a moral abomination or a form of insanity. There’s a whole thesis to be written about writing and cruelty and I’m sure that Highsmith’s life will provide plenty of material there. Perhaps there’s something about writers needing to be in control.
I can’t post any links right now but it’s worth checking out Jeanette Winterson’s review of The Talented Miss Highsmith over at the New York Times, Pat Cohen’s article in the same publication and Michael Dirda’s review of the Ripley novels at the New York Review of Books.