AfterEllen.com Book Club #5: “The Price of Salt”

This month, some of us re-read and many of us read for the first time, Patricia Highsmith’s classic The Price of Salt, originally published in the 1950s under the name Claire Morgan. I was one of the first-time readers, and am full of Feelings, so let’s jump right into some discussion questions.

1) Let’s talk about Carol.

Unknowingly, we chose this book at the same time that Emily Danforth (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) was doing an annual re-read of it, and before I even started, I had this conversation in mind:

Emily Danforth loved Carol, so I was going to love Carol, right?! And so as I made my way through a good portion of the book and still felt slightly befuddled by my feelings about her, I wasn’t sure if I was missing something. But many of you on Goodreads also voiced similar thoughts: that she seemed too cold or too inscrutable to really understand, or to trust her true intentions, or to truly believe Therese’s attraction. Her treatment of Therese as a child (sending her to bed seeming the most glaring example) also bothered many. In the same regards, Therese’s utter willingness to acquiesce to this, and to follow blindly whatever Carol told her to do, also bothered me and struck me throughout as what people often think love is, but which ends up isn’t, really. (Although who am I to define what love is; how can anyone? To follow another theme of the novel.) Karen made this interesting observation too, in regards to our last book club pick:

“When I think about the characters I find certain similarities between this book and The Last Nude. Carol and Tamara are older than Therese and Rafaela, and at least in my opinion, not the nicest women. Both Therese and Rafaela fall madly in love with them and are willing to give up their lives. Carol seems like an emotionally unavailable woman to me; even when she says she loves Therese, it makes me wonder if it is true. And once again, her treating Therese like a child, makes me consider if she wants a partner or the child that has been taken away from her.”

At the same time, inscrutable characters are often the best kinds, even if they can also irritate; they’re the ones that linger in our memories, and make us ask questions. And books that make us ask questions are inevitably more important than those that don’t. I only started to truly love Carol, maybe, towards the end, and in such a way that I immediately wanted to start the book again, to meet her and try to understand her again — suddenly making Danforth’s point of view much clearer.

And in truth, since we see so much of the action from Therese’s point of view, perhaps the reason that we only start to see Carol as a real person towards the end of the novel — one with faults and vulnerabilities, who loves fiercely and wants to be loved in return — is because that’s the only point where Therese has grown up enough to move past infatuation and see her as a true person, as well.

2) How did the setting(s) affect the story?

Aside from my Carol feelings, I had a hard time really getting into this book at first, an experience I now in hindsight see as Highsmith’s masterful handle of quiet but steady story building and suspense. But perhaps it was also a personal thing, as I knew they were headed on a road trip at some point, and I love the classic American trope of road trips Out West so much that I just wanted it to start. And while one of their first big stops was Chicago, I found the selections for the other critical plot points so interesting — Waterloo, Colorado Springs, Sioux Falls, blips on the map easy to miss.

And New York stands as such an important character herself. Getting such a feel for the sparkling setting of being young in New York City at that moment in history was in fact my favorite part of the first half of the book, a feeling that’s rewarded when Therese finally returns at the end, and has that one moment when she’s recovering her own autonomy and takes a sudden delight and gratitude in the bustle of the side streets that she hardly paid attention to months before. And all the drives through the tunnel with Carol — this was as much a New York novel as it was a Road Trip Out West novel, and while it was all done quietly, I loved all of it.

3) What of Rindy and Abby?

Rindy, Carol’s daughter, and Abby, her former best friend and lover, are such interesting characters to me — characters we only see the outlines of, from Therese’s point of view, outlines that we know will never be filled in for us. At moments when I was feeling particularly empathetic of Therese, I joined in her bitterness towards them, as they were the two other souls in the world who could possibly take Carol away from her. At other moments, I felt for the bitterness that Rindy and Abby must have felt equally, in separate but important ways: for Rindy, to have a mother torn from her so suddenly, and for Abby, to stay loyal to a woman she knows she doesn’t possess anymore. In the end, while I know the real monster in the room was society and the consequences it struck upon Carol for being a lesbian, I still can’t say for sure whether or not Carol was a horrible mother and friend, or the best one.

4) This ending. What did you think of it?

So many different things seemed to happen so fast: something about that painting in the library lifting the veil of her obsession from Therese’s eyes, returning to herself and moving away from Carol; Carol fighting so courageously for her child and her life and then, perhaps simultaneously, submitting to her defeat. And then the last ten pages, so fascinating: Therese standing up to Carol and then feeling the attraction to that actress at the cocktail party, and it feels for a moment that she is on the brink of a new life, and part of you is there with her, excited and encouraging, while the other half still mourns those last three months and what they may have meant. And then boom: she leaves the party, and returns to Carol. This is presumably what was heralded as the happy ending, what may have been the first happy ending ever in a lesbian novel. But some of you on Goodreads seem to find this completely unbelievable, that Therese would not have returned to Carol after all that transpired. What do you think?

5) Very related: What’s up with the title?

Many people were also confused about the significance of the title, which I felt as well until Therese’s time alone in Sioux Falls, where I believe we see the first references to salt.

“In the middle of the block, she opened the door of a coffee shop, but they were playing one of the songs she had heard with Carol everywhere, and she let the door close and walked on. The music lived, but the world was dead. And the song would die one day, she thought, but how would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?”

“She felt shy with him, yet somehow close, a closeness charged with something she had never felt with Richard. Something suspenseful, that she enjoyed. A little salt, she thought.”

This seems a reference to the passage in Matthew from the Bible:

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

While your interpretation of all this can vary, salt seems to undoubtedly be something of value, something organic, something that matters.

Accordingly, Julia summed my own feelings up very well: “Interesting that it’s often said this book has a happyish ending. It seems the title is more focused on the ish part.”

Exactly! To invoke the “price” of something invariably brings up a feeling of loss, a sense of something that had to be given up for something else to exist. So is the price of salt Carol losing Rindy? Or is the price of salt simply emblematic of love in general — that you can’t love truly without pain, without some sort of sacrifice? Because while Carol lost many heartbreaking things, it seemed that, even with the happy ending, Therese lost things as well, if less tangible and harder to describe.

What are your thoughts?

I also hope you all saw the announcement of the book club selection for February. I’ll be back with choices for March in a few weeks!

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