Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

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I was pondering what to read next when I remembered that I had seen the movie, “Carol”, when it was released earlier in the year and loved that so therefore was interested in reading the book itself. I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very good read.

It’s the story of a young shop girl in 1950’s New York City who meets an older richer woman and how their relationship develops. It’s pegged as an early lesbian book, but after reading it, I would argue that the story covers human relationships more than a lesbian one. However, as it was written in 1952 when same-sex issues were extremely undercover (out of necessity) and seen as morally wrong, there’s no denying that the two women have to have a more complicated relationship than would otherwise be seen in those times. (Ahhh. Those judgy 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s….)

Anyhow, the two women are attracted to each other, but is it authentic? Or is one more authentic than the other? And then who’s to say, anyway?

patricia highsmithThere are other issues involved as well: One of the women is older, more experienced, and very rich (the other the opposite in those ways). One of the women is married with a child (and the other is not), and so there is a lot at stake here if the relationship went public (e.g. probable loss of parental rights, loss of money/support etc.) It’s the 1950’s when women still were seen as property (culturally speaking) – women didn’t tend to work (so no $$), property was probably in husband’s name (so women had few assets) and all that jazz. Divorce is frowned upon and if you add in a same-sex relationship, you end up with an explosive mix.

Plus – who is in love with whom? Is the relationship equal in terms of how one feels for the other or there other reasons involved? And there’s the power issues…

It’s a complex novel (as you can tell), but it reads very quickly. It’s one of those books where you read it and then do most of your thinking about it after you’ve finished it. I loved it.

It’s interesting that I think the novel’s complexity also reflects the author’s own complexity as, according to several people, she could be a rude and misanthropic person who preferred animals (particularly snails*) to people. There were also addiction issues, and her personal life was a bit rocky, relationship-wise. (She had an unsettling childhood life as well which probably played a role.) Add to this the fact that she refused to let people put her into any categories of any kind (at a time when *everyone* was put into a category of one sort or another), and you have one very interesting person.

Regardless of how you pin this novel genre-wise, it’s well regarded and Highsmith described it as one of the first same-sex relationship novels where the protagonist and the lover had not killed themselves by the end due to being gay in a homophobic culture. (The two women in this novel are not happy per se in this story, but at least they are alive and breathing at the end. Baby steps, people.)

Anyway, this was a fascinating read for both the narrative and the cultural meaning that surrounded it at the time so I do recommend it. It’s a passionate love story but then it’s also so much more. I really enjoyed it (especially in combination with the film of the same name) and I think you’d like it.

(Highsmith is well known for her other novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (neither of which I’ve read yet). Has anyone else read anything by her? What did you think?)

Extra for you: An interesting article from The Guardian (05/13/15) about more background behind the book and film.

* Highsmith once took a handbag full of 100 snails and some lettuce to a dinner party. I’m not sure what to say about that, apart from perhaps it reflects her view of being true to herself. Go her. If you want to bring a  bag o’ snails to a dinner party, then you bring them. More power to you.

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6 thoughts on “Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

  1. I loved both the book and film, too! Read it some years back, then after watching the film, re-read the book again. Seems I didn’t recall much from my first reading, so the second time round was as good as a first. And about Highsmith’s obsession with snails, there was another report that she made multiple trips to and from France (after deciding to move there, and learned that live snails were prohibited from entering the country), smuggling her pet snails (6-10 at a time) that were hidden in her bra! 😮

    • Fascinating about the snail obsession. I wonder what was driving that (enough to put them in her bra!!) Glad you liked both the movie and the book. Have you read other Highsmith works? What did you think?

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