Cate Blanchett stars in Todd Haynes much-talked-about adaptation of the controversial Patricia Highsmith novel, Carol. Lucy Scholes returns to the book to find out what the original fuss was all about.

Carol

“At last the reading climate is right for Carol,” crime writer Val McDermid observes in her introduction to Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 story of a forbidden lesbian romance (originally published under the title The Price of Salt ).

Writing in 2010, McDermid cites a host of esteemed lesbian writers here in the UK whose work has paved the way for Carol’s reappearance. From Sarah Waters and Ali Smith, through Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy but of course, Highsmith led the advance guard more than half a century ago.

“The novel of a love society forbids,” ran the tagline of the mass-market paperback version, and it duly divided its audience. Rejected by Harper, she took her second novel to a different press, where it was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan so as not to taint the success she’d had with her first book, Strangers on a Train (shortly thereafter to be filmed by Hitchcock).
 

"Fundamentally though, Carol is a moving love story. And one that’s beautifully told, achingly honest, but never gratuitously or tritely sentimental."
 

The book’s danger, however, was also its allure. As McDermid puts it, “A novel that addressed a relationship between two women with seriousness, eroticism and classy prose was as exotic as a leopard in a Third Avenue deli.”

During this period, mainstream novels steered clear of depictions of anything that didn’t comply with heterosexual norms. This isn’t to say that people weren’t aware of homosexuality, it’s just that it existed somewhere in the shadows.

As Richard, the on-off boyfriend of Therese Belivet—the young shop-girl who falls in love with beautiful divorcée Carol Aird—says to Therese when she asks if he’s ever heard of two men in love, “Hear of it? You mean people like that? Of course.”
 

Patricia Highsmith young
Image: Patricia Highsmith via Publishers Weekly

These were the days, Highsmith herself reminds us in an afterword written in 1989, “when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.”

“I don’t mean people like that,” Therese replies to Richard, taking issue with the ghettoization implicit in his description. “I mean two people who fall in love suddenly with each other, out of the blue. Say two men or two girls.”

This is precisely what’s happened to Therese. She hasn’t particularly enjoyed her trysts with Richard, and she certainly doesn’t want to marry him, although unsure as to exactly why, or what she wants instead.

It could be said that her life turned upside down when she fell passionately and unexpectedly in love with Carol, but in actuality it’s the opposite: things fall into place.
 

"The novel of a love society forbids, ran the tagline of the mass-market paperback version, and it duly divided its audience."

Their relationship, however, is one fraught with risk

Carol is in the middle of a divorce. The ensuing custody battle for her daughter suffers catastrophically as a result of her and Therese’s love affair. The subsequent cat and mouse game between husband and wife played out via lawyers and an unscrupulous PI provides a nod to the thrillers for which Highsmith remains most well known.

Fundamentally, Carol is a moving love story. One that’s beautifully told, achingly honest, but never gratuitously or tritely sentimental.

How wonderful that it has shot to fame again, 62 years after it was first published, thanks to Todd Haynes’s film adaptation, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the star-crossed lovers.

 

Carol by Patricia Highsmith is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available from the Reader's Digest bookshop

 

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