Carol by Patricia Highsmith

lesbian fictionWhen I am dried up, a desert of words, feeling what I imagine it would be like to be an old woman in a time before any of the waves of feminism whetted her appetite for life, I always find myself reaching for a book called Carol. The copy I lovingly caress, in my hour of need, is a handy-sized hardback re-issued as a Bloomsbury Classic in 1993. First published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it was said to be the first gay novel with a happy ending. (This is a happy ending in the world of 1950s gay fiction by the way, so be prepared.)

Although truth be told it is not only the subject matter – a tale of two women’s persecuted love – that I find myself going back to this book time and time again. Of course I am rooting for anxious little Therese Belivet to stalk smug privileged Carol Aird successfully into loving her and for them to be happy. It is more the way Patricia Highsmith tells this story from beginning to end without a word, a metaphor, a character, a theme or an event out of place that inspires me as a woman and a writer. There honestly isn’t a duff word in the book. Even Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby – whom Highsmith’s technique and style at least equally match – has a wincing paragraph or two of description about sunshine sounding like tinkerbells or some such jarring nonsense. Needless to say both books are pure poetry. And Carol kills it better and better with every read, right from its lonely opening lines. It has me. It is perfect.

The lunch hour in the co-workers’ cafeteria at Frankenberg’s had reached its peak. There was no room left at any of the long tables, and more and more people were arriving to wait back of the wood barricades by the cash register.

Written for the feminist revolution blog WOMANTHEORY for International Women’s Week

Carol the film directed by Todd Haynes is currently in pre-production and stars Cate Blanchett 

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