Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt

  I first read it a year ago, in June. I was so much happier then. I was in love, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt is the ultimate love story. Re-reading it now, eleven months later, as I’m saying goodbye to that same love, counting the days and minutes until he moves away – well, it’s an utterly wrenching experience. Their soaring love reminds me of what I’ve lost. I would stop, but in three days I’ll be hosting the first of four discussions of this seminal book at Dunshee House, and I need to recapture the book’s essence, even though my perspective now is so completely different.

  What a contrast this 1952 novel bears to our last selection in the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club, Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar from 1948. While Vidal’s streamlined narrative offers a morally-bleak vision of homosexuality in America that borders on satire, Highsmith’s more fleshed-out, detail-rich novel of a wealthy divorcee with a child falling in love with a nineteen-year-old department store clerk registers on the other end of the scale, its high-strung emotionalism tipping it toward melodrama.

Vidal’s novel, our group decided, had no genuinely likeable character. Not a member of the reading group liked Jim Willard, his young everyman fresh out of the military, bed-hopping his way through life dreaming of his old high school love. On the other hand, I suspect there will be plenty of identification and caring for young Therese and Mrs Carol Aird, and fingernails will be chewed worrying about them right up to the last sentence.

Re-reading it this afternoon, as I find myself at the halfway point, though I’m thoroughly enjoying the reading experience, I’m feeling a queasy panic. Um, just what exactly did I think we would be discussing?

The book itself is fascinating, simply as a phenomenon, written by the author of Strangers on a Train, the source of one of Hitchcock’s masterpiece films, as well as the recently-filmed The Talented Mister Ripley. Patricia Highsmith is a sexually-ambiguous author who’s returning to popularity at a time when many contemporary authors who were considered her superiors are being forgotten. An additional boost to the returning popularity of The Price of Salt is the recent contention that the ground-breaking lesbian novel inspired the lovers-trying-to-escape-the-law, flight-and-chase sequence in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

  “I have long had a theory,” says Terry Castle of The New Republic, “that Nabokov knew The Price of Salt and modeled the climactic cross-country car chase in Lolita on Therese and Carol’s frenzied bid for freedom…”

Those are pretty juicy credentials. But what exactly are the issues here worth discussing in our reading group? Enough blogging! I need to continue re-reading The Price of Salt and find the heart of the problem, the place where ambiguity and morality and conflicting readers’ opinions can converge.

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About the Author:

Mary Ellen Quinn is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Librarianship (2014), the former editor of Reference Books Bulletin, and a long-time contributing writer to Booklist.

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