Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 19, 2015

Carol, by Patricia Highsmith #BookReview

CarolThis week it’s been all about Star Wars, but another film about to hit our screens was in the media tonight: it’s Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel of the same name, and starring our very own Australian actor Cate Blanchett.

Bloomsbury had sent me the book last week, but I’m ahead of the game: I read the book back in 1997, and wrote a rather naïve review of it in my reading journal.  1997 seems such a very long time ago now… the only other GayLit I had read was E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice (which I thought was terribly sad because the only way the lovers could be together was to escape to the English Greenwood and live outside society) and The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst (which I thought was a much less interesting gay version of Lolita).  In 1997 the idea of Ireland voting in favour of same-sex marriage would have been bizarre, the way that Russia oppressing gays seems bizarre now in 2015.

Anyway, I thought Carol was only an ‘ok’ sort of book so I don’t intend to read it again, though I’ll probably see the film.  But FWIW, here’s some of what I thought about the book when I read it all those years ago.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It was a trailblazer for its time – a lesbian love story (sometimes a bit coy in parts) with the possibility of a happy ending of sorts instead of eternal misery or damnation for the lovers.

But there’s a high price to pay.  Carol loses her child, and the loss is glossed over without much attention to the anguish such a bereavement would entail.  Yet it seems consistent with Carol’s character, because she’s rather cavalier about her relationships.  She’s sanguine about the ex-husband whose feelings are of no consequence at all; she’s indifferent to an ex-lover Abby whose jealousy is perpetuated by an unfeeling ‘friendship’, and she abandons the child for a road trip across America with Therese.

I’ll be interested to see how Blanchett portrays Carol, because back in 1997 I thought she was manipulative and moody, whereas I felt sorry for poor anxious Therese who gave up everything, only to be treated like a phase by Carol. My reading of it was that

Therese was young, passionate, uncertain and impulsive.  Carol was older and wiser and  she thought Therese would move on, possibly to a heterosexual relationship.  Being rich, she had no idea of the financial risks she submitted Therese to.

I also couldn’t quite see what the attraction was between them; it seemed like a relationship based on a flimsy foundation.  After all, if you’re risking everything, then you need more than just sexual attraction to make the relationship last.  But from what I’ve heard about the film so far, perhaps I misread the book (though I see that some other readers at Goodreads thought the same).

What’s really interesting to me about this book is that it was ground-breaking in its time, was unexpectedly a best-seller, and then disappeared off the radar until now.  How did that happen?

Update 19/12/15
Jacquiwine really liked it (see comments below) but a little more of the plot is revealed in her review.

Author: Patricia Highsmith
Title: Carol
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2015
ISBN: 9781408865675
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Availability
Fishpond: Carol: Film Tie-in

 

 


Responses

  1. Hey, you sped past me on ‘Carol’. My article on ‘Carol’ will come out on Sunday. I also did not read the novel in 1997 but instead only a couple of weeks ago in 2015.

    • Well, I expect your review to be a good deal more perceptive than mine!

      • Not likely.

        • It will be. There has been a worldwide shift in sensibility about same-sex relationships since I read this book and I suspect that I failed to notice authorial commentary and/or symbols about social aspects of a relationship that was viewed very differently back then, both by the author and by the wider society.

  2. Very interesting, Lisa. I loved this novel when I read it earlier this year, so much so that I think it will make my end-of-year highlights post when I get around to putting it together in Jan. I believed in the relationship between these two women, but it’s always interesting to see another view! :)

    • Thanks, Jacqui, I’ve linked to your review. (I like the layout of your blog with the search box easy to find at the top and your posts labelled with the name of the book.) As you’ve read it more recently than me, can you remind me why it had the title, The Price of Salt?

      • Thanks for the link, Lisa!

        **************Possible Spoilers**********

        I don’t recall seeing an official explanation of the meaning behind the original title, but I wondered if it was a reference to the consequences of the relationship, especially for Carol. By getting involved with Therese, Carol is adding some ‘salt’ or piquancy to her life. However, she may have to pay a high price for her actions, especially bearing in mind the battle with Harge over custody of Rindy. That’s just my interpretation of the title, so I’d be very interested in any other perspectives on this point!

        • That interpretation sounds ok to me!

  3. I’m in the fence about whether I want to read this one. Wasn’t this story sparked by a real life relationship?

    • I’m not sure… I haven’t chased up biographical details about Highsmith. #DuckingForCover I read The Talented Mr Ripley and wasn’t very excited about it, so she’s not an author I plan to follow.

  4. I read this one many years ago and quite liked it; I do enjoy books set in New York during this era. But I remember thinking the narrative was a bit slow and tame (there’s no sex in it, despite it being about a lesbian relationship, or maybe it was so subtle I missed it). I saw the film a few weeks ago and thought it was a faithful adaptation, if overly stylised in terms of fashion, scenery etc. It also paled against Brooklyn, which I saw the week before, which was such an astonishingly brilliant film I’m still thinking about it a month down the line…

    • Interesting that you came across it a while ago too: do you remember how?
      I wrote in my journal that I didn’t quite see why my friend had thought so highly of it and why she insisted I read it. She came out some years later, and then *penny drops* I understood.

      • It was reissued by Vintage, with an introduction by Val McDermid, and was on display in Waterston’s. The only reason I picked it up was because the cover was so pretty. Shallow? Me? LOL.

        Interesting that your friend recommended it to you… was she trying to tell you something ;-)

        • I’m a sucker for a pretty cover too:)
          My friend? I didn’t think so then, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me then. Now, well, I think she might have been. I wish I’d understood.

  5. I want to read this and I’ll see the film when I can rent it. I saw The Two Faces of January–wasn’t crazy about it but then the book seemed to be missing something too.

    • It’s had rave reviews here, but then, anything with Cate in it does!

      • yes she is popular. The basic idea of the novel (not the film) was an attraction between the male characters (not a sexual attraction but a father-son dynamic). I don’t think that was played hard enough by the author.

        • I don’t know that one at all… it’s so hard to keep up with everything!

          • Not her best, I’d say.


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