Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Well, this is a departure from the usual genre of books I read, but as I am embracing change of late, I thought why not read a thrilling Patricia Highsmith novel rather than yet another cosy mid century domestic saga? I requested Carol from Alice at Bloomsbury (after she asked me if I would like some books) as not only was I keen to try a Patricia Highsmith, but I was also intrigued by the rather sinister sounding premise, and by the fact that it is set in New York, which, as you know, is of quite some interest to me at this present moment in time! It looks very smart and sophisticated from the front cover, and that’s exactly what it is; a slick, elegant, excellently written tale that manages to be both profoundly unsettling and yet somehow wonderfully romantic, all at the same time.

Therese Belivet is a nineteen year old with no family, a boyfriend she’s not really interested in, and a depressing job on the toy counter in a New York department store. She’s young, intelligent, attractive, and utterly bored with her life. Therese is at her counter dealing with the Christmas rush of frantic parents one afternoon when she sees a woman come out of the lift opposite. Blonde, wealthy, elegant, and beautiful, Carol Aird is a thirtysomething divorcee, and without any warning, in the instant they lock eyes, Therese loses her heart to her. Therese sells her a doll, and as Carol wants it sent, she leaves her address. Her heart filled with an indescribable, totally unexpected happiness at knowing that she has fallen head over heels in love, Therese decides to send Carol a Christmas card. She doesn’t expect a response, but she gets one; Carol phones the store, and delighted at the absurdity of the situation, invites Therese for a Christmas drink.

From this drink blossoms an unlikely romance tinged friendship. Therese becomes obsessed with Carol; every moment of the day that’s not spent with her is filled with boredom and dreariness. She can’t bear to be with her over amorous boyfriend Richard any more, whose constant declarations of love she finds suffocating. However, though it’s obvious Therese is smitten, Carol’s feelings are never made quite clear. Newly divorced from her husband Herge, wrangling over custody for their young daughter Rindy, and deeply involved with her best friend and former lover Abby, Carol’s life, emotions and loyalties are far more complex than Therese’s. Not ever quite sure where she stands, Therese finally admits she loves her on a cross America  trip they take together, and Carol declares that she feels the same. However, pursued and threatened by the people they have left behind, their idyllic holiday soon turns into a nightmare, and the realities of being female lovers begin to seem insurmountable. Does Carol really love Therese enough to give up her comfortable life, and will Abby and Herge let her? Does Therese love Carol enough to leave everything she knows behind, and take a risk on what everyone else tells her is nothing but a youthful, impermanent crush? As the book nears its close, the tension and uncertainty reach fever pitch, and the ever present possibility of danger in the form of the women’s jealous and angry former lovers hovers like a suffocating cloud. The ending is a shock; unexpected, unnerving, and perhaps not quite what you thought you wanted; perfect, therefore, for the unsettling story it completes.

Carol was nothing like I expected; my only experience of Patricia Highsmith before reading this was watching the excellent The Talented Mr Ripley, and I kept wondering when the murders were going to start. Initially I felt a bit let down at this lack of a traditional ‘thriller’ plot; however, when I finished, I realised how tense I had been throughout, how nervous, how afraid, that something terrible was going to happen. Carol; beautiful, pale, statuesque, is unreadable, unknowable; what she wants, what she is capable of, is never quite made available to the reader. Therese; passionate, headstrong, and totally under Carol’s spell, appears to be the perfect victim, just waiting to be destroyed by the woman she loves. Then there are the jealous, potentially malicious thwarted former partners, Abby and Richard, both waiting in the wings as potential sources of danger and damage. Nothing in Carol and Therese’s world is safe or secure; it felt like the entire novel was sitting on a fault line, waiting for the world Highsmith had created to be shaken apart at any moment. When the ending comes, it is shocking and unexpected; but not in the way you might think. I thought it was superb.

In the introduction to the novel, the crime writer Val McDermid claims that this is the first ‘lesbian’ novel, but I would disagree with that classification. Highsmith doesn’t set out to write a novel about homosexuality; this element of the story comes across as rather incidental to the plot, and she doesn’t sensationalise the two womens’ sexual preferences. Carol is, first and foremost, simply a thriller that plays on the tension between two people who have fallen in love and yet barely know each other, and the potential that something awful could happen as a result; it is not about the choice Carol and Therese have made to love a member of their own sex. Highsmith’s blase treatment of the pair’s ‘deviant’ sexuality was refreshing, and I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the 1940s. Due to the subject matter, Highsmith found it very difficult to get it published, and until 1991, it wasn’t published under her own name. At the time of publication, it was incredibly popular, and I can see why; it’s about an unsuitable and to most people, an incomprehensible love affair, between a nineteen year old girl and a thirty something woman, who manage to inexplicably fall in love at first sight. It doesn’t matter that they are both women, and it doesn’t matter that they seem wildly mismatched; they love each other anyway, and they court potential danger, and make many sacrifices in order to be together. It’s a bit scary, but also rather romantic, and this portrayal of reckless love could well be the reason why it flew off the shelves when it first came out. So, part thriller, part romantic fantasy, part film noir plot, all rolled elegantly into one; Carol was a welcome and intriguing departure from my usual reads, and I’d highly recommend it. My only slight disappointment was that it didn’t really feature New York in it as much as I’d hoped, but then I’ll be there myself in three weeks, so it wasn’t the end of the world.

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18 comments

  1. I know you have enough to do and enough to read right now, but Andrew Wilson’s BEAUTIFUL SHADOW is an excellent biography of Patricia Highsmith. She was a very troubled soul and much of her complex, difficult life shows up in one form or another in her writing.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Deb – I’d definitely like to read more about her and also read more of her novels; a project to keep in mind for a time when I have less on my plate!

  2. I’ve never really fancied Patricia Highsmith’s books, though, like you, I enjoyed the film of The Talented Mr Ripley. However, as always, your wonderful review has made me think I might actually enjoy this one…

    1. I think it’s a book you have to be in the right mood for, Penny. I like Highsmith’s writing style now I’ve tried it and I’ll definitely be trying some of her other novels. If you like suspense and fancy something a bit different, then do give Carol a go!

  3. Interesting! I love Patricia Highsmith and have read most of her novels. I’ve avoided this one because I thought it wasn’t a thriller and more of a lesbian romance. But after reading your excellent review, I’ll definitely look out for it now.

    1. I’m glad I have convinced you, Astrid! It really is much more a thriller than anything else and the physical aspects of their relationship are subtly and sensitively written. If you’re already a fan of Patricia Highsmith, I think you’d really enjoy this.

  4. This sounds excellent. Like you, my only experience of Patricia Highsmith has been watching The Talented Mr Ripley. I’ve been wanting to try one of her books but didn’t know where to start, so thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Hi Helen – it really is a brilliant book, and I think this is probably as good a place as any to start with a Highsmith novel, though don’t expect the same pacy murder thriller esque plot at The Talented Mr Ripley! I hope you give it a go soon.

  5. I’ve only read a couple of Highsmith’s thrillers, but I’ve really enjoyed them. Your review definitely makes me want to read another! But I do wonder about your disagreeing with Val McDermid’s calling this a ‘lesbian novel'; it sounds as though you’re saying that to be a ‘lesbian novel’, the relationship between the women must be sensationalized, but surely the definition is ever so much wider than that. So perhaps that’s not quite what you meant?

    1. I’m glad! Good point – sorry if I didn’t explain myself properly. I wasn’t attempting to define what I thought a lesbian novel was – I haven’t really read much LBGT fiction so I am not really in a position to come to a definition – but what I was trying to say was that to me this isn’t really a novel about the experience of being a lesbian, so I thought it was rather limiting and inaccurate to describe it as purely a ‘lesbian novel’. I don’t think the fact it’s not sensationalised is what doesn’t make it a ‘lesbian’ novel, but that the main thrust of it is about the unknowns between the pair and the potential danger of that and of their jealous former partners, and the fact that they are lesbians doesn’t really matter in plot terms – the book wouldn’t be massively different if it was about a heterosexual relationship, in my opinion. Does that make better sense? I hope so!

  6. How strange: both you and Kim of Reading Matters have reviewed Carol this weekend and have convinced me to finally pick it up from my shelves where it has been languishing for years.

    Highsmith’s thrillers have never appealed but I bought Carol on the strength of a friend’s recommendation (she was writing about it in her thesis on lesbian fiction at the time). I also picked up a collection of Highsmith’s short stories -Eleven- because “The Snail Watcher” was lauded; it is tense and claustrophobic and vivid in my memory.

    Kim hasn’t read The Group by Mary McCarthy but she knows how much I love it; she suggested that Carol may be very similar in tone and period. The Group vividly evokes 1930s New York and I think it would make perfect reading for when you’re there (and of course I really want you to read it!)

    1. Oh that is funny! I’ll have to pop over and read her review.

      I think you’d really enjoy this, Claire – it’s a bit different and has a very 1950’s vibe to it.

      I am definitely going to be reading The Group – it’s on my Reading America list – after hearing you praise it so highly I couldn’t pass up the chance to read it, don’t worry! :)

  7. Ha, Rachel I think as well as being an idealist and a romantic there’s a bit of you that likes a thrill in your reading… cue Woman in White, Still Missing etc!

    I wonder if the scriptwriters of Thelma and Louise ever read this??? Sounds like there are similarities.

    1. Hahaha Merenia! You’ve got the measure of me – I’m a woman of contradictions!

      Yes that’s a good comparison actually – I think this would make an excellent stand alone film as well, with a good director and a good musical score to eke out the tension.

  8. A compelling review, Rachel. I’ll let you in on a secret. Had I seen the book on a shelf I would likely have bought it for the cover alone. There. My secret is out. I am one of those readers whose is attracted to books by the covers. The one above surely sets a tone. I love vintage books with their ornate covers and modern ones as well. Of course, your review here would make me actually read it, for which I am appreciative.

    It is so interesting to read books that have been around awhile, like this, and then to imagine them in the context of the era in which they were written. There seems to be the right amount of tension in “Carol” to hold the reader in without knowing why; what is around the corner, who is lurking, what crime is about to happen?

    I’m sorry the book didn’t give you enough of New York. I know you will soon be experiencing it first hand. You are to be commended for embracing change in so many aspects of your life, Rachel. Thanks for another compelling review.

    1. Thank you Penny! Oh that made me laugh! Don’t worry Penny, I am just the same – I’m a sucker for a pretty cover! This cover is indeed very nice and really captures the period and tone well – sadly not all covers are this good nowadays so Carol’s certainly stands out above the crowd.

      I think this is a book well worth trying and exactly because it is so tense and also so evocative of the 1950s – obviously many of the taboos that made it shocking then are no longer a problem for our society but it’s still easy to imagine how this could have been a scandalising book!

      Thank you Penny! Change is my friend at the moment, though we’ll see how I cope when I get to New York and only have books for friends! ;)

  9. I thought you and Kimbofo had been having a readathon together when I saw this (I would have joined in if you had) but it looks like complete blogendipity which is lovely to see on the blogs.

    I have been recommended this book a few times and reading your thoughts and Kim’s this is a book that I think I definitley need to read in the future. I do love its new cover too.

    1. No! Blogendipity indeed, and very random too, as this isn’t a particularly well known book!

      I think you’d really like this Simon – you’d be right at home as it’s a bit sensation – like!

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