It's Christmas, and money's tight, so Therese Belivet does what any unemployed 19-year-old stage designer might --- she takes a temp job in the toy department of a Manhattan department store. Her days define dreary. The aging sales clerks seem “stricken with an everlasting exhaustion and terror.” As for her customers, they're also desperate, but for a doll, any doll.
Then Mrs. H.F. Aird walks in.
Calm gray eyes. Blonde. Pale, thin ankles. Suede high heels. Her voice was “like her coat, rich and supple, and somehow full of secrets.”
Therese has a boyfriend, who “talked like any of the people one saw in Village bars, young people who were supposed to be writers or actors, and who usually did nothing.” After ten months, they aren't growing closer. This isn't love.
But Mrs. H. F. Aird --- what is that attraction?
Therese sends a card that says nothing much. But just sending it is provocative. Carol Aird, 32 and unhappily married and a mother, responds. And so it begins...
Patricia Highsmith, known for thrillers that show how easily evil can masquerade as goodness, wrote “The Price of Salt” right after Strangers on a Train. She was short of cash, so she took a job in a department store. A cool beauty walked in. After she left, Highsmith felt “cool and swimmy” in her head; that night, she wrote an eight-page outline. Her publisher had been pressing her for another suspense novel, but she said that she didn't regard “Strangers on a Train” as suspense --- and she considered this new plot, she has written, “simply a novel with an interesting story.”
That is so disingenuous. This was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and even in wicked New York, Highsmith notes, “those were the days when people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.” So to write a love story about two women --- could Highsmith have been completely surprised when Harper & Bros. rejected it?
The happy ending: A “specialty” press published “The Price of Salt” --- under the byline of “Claire Morgan” --- in paperback in 1952.
It sold a million copies.
It deserved to. In a swift 275 pages, Highsmith creates a world that's seems entirely plausible. First, there's the love story: the push-pull of the flirting, the heart-stopping looks, the thrill of a touch. Then there's the suspense aspect. Divorce wasn't no-fault anywhere in America in the early 1950s; it was a time of private detectives and blame. And so, when Carol and Therese take a trip, they're not alone --- Mr. Aird's private eye follows. This is not a romance without consequences.
And, of course, there is the sex.
But do not think for a second that this book has appeal only to women who love women --- or men who get off on lesbian sex.
There is, in fact, almost no sex in the novel. This is not a book about Tab A and Slot B, and then Tab A being banished.
And that is its power. The book is about two women coming to terms with forbidden love --- about wanting to be together and having trouble saying how much they want that, and being scared and having misunderstandings. It's got all the stuff of a love story between heterosexuals. Just with higher stakes. And an ending that's surprising...
“I never wrote another book like this,” Highsmith.
Well, you never read one like this.
[Thanks to Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, which will be published in December, 2009.]
To buy “The Price of Salt” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Strangers on a Train” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, and Ripley's Game” from Amazon.com, click here.