Hopefully, you’ve all seen Carol by now. If not, you should go see it, if for no other reason than to relive those glorious five days in May when we thought Cate Blanchett played for our team.
The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith on which Carol is based, holds a very special place in my heart. At the age of twenty, lonely and confused in Paris, I decided the only way for me to know if I was actually feeling what I thought I was feeling for the girl I had a crush on was to read a novel about it. Some people consult the internet to unravel these kinds of feelings. I went to a bookstore.
I don’t remember how I learned about The Price of Salt. All I knew was that it had something to do with lesbians, and I needed to read a book about lesbians. Preferably, a book about lesbians who didn’t know they were lesbians until suddenly they fell head over heels for one another, and lived happily ever after.
There are a handful of English-language bookstores in Paris, and the most famous one – Shakespeare and Co. – didn’t carry The Price of Salt. I remember walking into a smaller shop, just a few blocks from Notre Dame. There was barely enough space to walk comfortably between the shelves, eliciting several awkward run-ins with fellow browsers, who scowled and walked away with their worn-out copies of Ulysses clasped pretentiously in hand.
I was having no luck, so I finally asked the owner if he had a copy. “Never heard of it,” he admitted, noticeably puzzled. “Well,” I said, discouraged, “can you recommend another book for me?” He asked me a few questions, and then handed me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles. Clearly, he had no idea what I was looking for.
Long story short, I got hold of an audiobook version of The Price of Salt online. I remember leaning against the window of the train on my way out of Paris, watching the countryside pass. I couldn’t stand the build-up… I just wanted Therese and Carol to makeout already, have lots of lady sex, and vow to love each other forever and ever.
But Highsmith isn’t one for easy-bake romance. The narrative is slow, the audiobook version even slower. Eventually, I became discouraged. There’s no way they’ll end up together, I thought, and I didn’t think I could withstand the disappointment. If they didn’t end up together, then clearly my own budding romance was doomed to fail.
Incidentally, Therese and Carol had a lot more luck than I did, but I couldn’t have known that at the time, because I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic to learn that somebody had the gumption to turn The Price of Salt into a film. I was so ecstatic, in fact, that I attended a queer book club to discuss the book, met a cute girl, and asked her out to the movies. Ah, to be young and… questionably, kind of in… what exactly was I in?
In freefall, reeling from my break-up, grasping for straws. That’s what I was in. I cried all through the movie, missed my ex like crazy, dreamed we would get back together just like Therese and Carol and live in an apartment on Madison Avenue… the date went downhill from there.
I moped all the way home, frustrated that two fictional characters from the 1950s (the 1950s, for God’s sake) had an easier time finding love than a motivated young lesbian living in the queerest city in the world.
Most of all, I was confused. I was confused because two years after giving up on what I assumed to be a depressing novel about 1950s lesbianism, I discovered that Carol did, in fact, have a happy ending.
Ever since coming out, I’ve gotten used to being told that queer relationships aren’t built to last. It’s a story told by numerous books, films and TV shows, not to mention straight people.
Just to give one example of the negative impact of these stories, I would like to give a shout-out to one of the most soul-crushing films ever written about lesbians (are they even lesbians?): Kissing Jessica Stein. It’s an old movie, but I watched it for the first time this summer, at a particularly terrifying moment in my personal life when I was beginning to realize that my relationship with my girlfriend was falling to pieces. Imagine my chagrin when, after two lighthearted hours of queer romance, the narrative jumps forward in time, revealing in quick succession a painful falling out, a teary break-up, and then… boom, we see the main character finally getting together with the man that she’s been oh so in love with all this time.
Ultimate heartbreak, ultimate frustration. At the time, this movie seemed to reveal my deepest darkest fears: that the woman I loved would break up with me, and society would make me straight again.
Thank god only the first part of that nightmare came true.
The point is, it’s hard enough to be queer without being consistently bombarded with images of tearful breakups and temporary lesbians. It’s hard enough when the people closest to you think it’s “just a phase,” but to turn to a book or a film hoping to find some reflection of yourself and find yourself utterly betrayed is downright heartbreaking.
Looking back on it now, I was right to choose The Price of Salt as the first queer novel I ever read. I was right to seek solace in the story of Carol and Therese, two imperfect individuals who find love.
What’s less clear in the film than in the book, however, is that they don’t just find love. They make love. Therese learns to stand up for herself, to say “no” instead of giving in to Carol’s every whim. And Carol learns to back off a little, to be vulnerable with Therese even when it means feeling out of control.
This is the kind of story that needs to be told, the kind of story that we are so often robbed of in mainstream depictions of queer women.
A love story with a happy ending.