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.