The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 PM on BookPeople’s third floor. Please join us Tuesday, October 20, at 2 PM as we discuss The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith.
- Post by Molly
From time to time, my attention focuses in on a novel that may or may not be a mystery novel, but can arguably fall under the category of noir. I then assign these novels to my mystery book clubs, wherein my book club members scoff at how little violence actually occurs in the book. Well, scoff away, for The Price of Salt, while it may be shelved in the mystery section, is not a mystery novel at all. It is a love story, written by an author known for her mystery novels.
After her first novel, Strangers on a Train, forever labeled Highsmith as a “suspense writer,” Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt under a different pen name, so as not to be newly labeled by the publishing industry as a lesbian writer. Renewed interest in Highsmith in the 1980s led to the reissue of The Price of Salt under her own name, and the novel is now being adapted to the screen, with a projected release date of later this fall.
Rather than a dark exploration of the worst aspects of the human psyche, Patricia Highsmith, in The Price of Salt, tells the story of two women, drawn together by a chance meeting at a crowded department store, who are initially convinced their attraction is as dark and forbidden as any other action by a Highsmith character. As they spend more time together, and leave their past commitments behind in favor of their growing attachment, they (uniquely for Highsmith characters) leave their ill-health and obsessions behind in favor of growing happiness and fulfillment.
While Carol and Therese, the novel’s protagonists, benefit and are enriched by their love, they must still face significant negativity and challenges to their relationship. The publication of any novel with overt lesbian themes in 1952 is, in itself, miraculous. Highsmith’s characteristic ability to portray misplaced human disgust as a method of social control is here exhibited in the reactions of friends and family to their affair. The “salt” of the title is used as a metaphor for the love that the protagonists feel for each other. Salt flavors, it intensifies, and is necessary to life, yet access to love between women in Highsmith’s time, like the price of salt in ancient Rome, is a high price indeed, willfully paid only by those who can afford the associated depredations.
Unlike other Highsmith novels, in The Price of Salt, it is not the protagonists who are psychologically unhealthy, but rather the society which surrounds them and refuses to accept their love. In this novel and in others, Highsmith is the poet of what lay beneath the surface in the repressed world of the 1950s. Her characters always have a choice – to keep up appearances, and be driven mad by the dissonance between interior thoughts and exterior being, or to confess, break free, and live the life they deserve. In Highsmith’s detective novels, the moment of confession is the moment of punishment, but also the moment of freedom, and in The Price of Salt, too, when Carol and Therese pursue their affair and admit their affections, they experience both societal censorship and a newly liberated life on the margins.
Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club members receive 10% off of their purchase of their monthly book club title.