June 2015 and September 2016
What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them.
This review is long, winding and spoilery…
This novel is at its heart a love story, a girl meets woman, a fall in love at first sight love story, a coming of age story, an artist’s story, a road story, a family story, a thriller, a chase, a will-they-won’t-they-story, a happy story, a sad story. This book is a great many things. It is a portrait of two people falling in love: Therese, the young artistic ‘sensitive’ girl and Carol, the just-divorced, beautiful and distant older woman. It is about what it means to love someone, to ‘be’ with someone, what you are willing to give up. It is of course a portrait of what it means to fall in love with another woman in 1950s America, the real risk and danger of being a lesbian in a society where a woman’s sexual desire was barely acknowledged in a heterosexual relationship. In one heartbreaking and maddening letter Carol writes of the damage her ex-husband can so easily inflict after finding out about her relationship with Therese. How she is made to stand in court and defend herself, ‘their attitude was that I must be somehow demented or blind’ and here Highsmith skewers perfectly that ridiculous notion that the men project, ‘a kind of regret, I thought, at the fact a fairly attractive woman is presumably unavailable to men.’ It is incredible to believe this was published in 1952 and speaks still directly to (some) attitudes still held today. The hold of course the ex-husband holds over her is Carol’s daughter, and this tension, the question of who Carol will choose, her daughter or Therese, makes up much of the suspenseful last third of the novel.
The first third then mainly concerns Therese and Carol’s burgeoning relationship. Therese is in love at first sight and after their second meeting acknowledges, ‘It would be almost like love, what she felt for Carol, except that Carol was a woman. It was not quite insanity, but it was certainly blissful.’ What then follows is a delicious circling of these two complex women. Highsmith never reduces this to a cliche of ‘the older woman’ and ‘innocent young girl’ Therese is sensitive and perceptive, she feels her emotions deeply but soon understands Carol better than her old lover and friend, Abby. While there is this give and take it is still Carol who calls the shots, she is rich (class too plays its part in this novel), has means, drives, she arranges their dates and meetings, but remains cold, distant. Carol hardly notices the cold, she stands outside in the freezing air with no coat on, while it is Therese who Carol remarks can stand the heat. Opposites attract of course. Their constant shifting relationship and Therese’s anxious examinations of each action of Carol’s makes the prose pin-sharp and breathtaking, it reads like a thriller, as Val McDermid notes in the introduction to my edition, the reader is always slightly wrong-footed, unsure what a character might do or say next. It is this ability that makes the writing seem so alive, the characters so real and believable. Like Jean Rhys, Highsmith writes characters, and women, in particular, who are allowed to feel a myriad of emotions at once, to contradict themselves, to change their mind or mood in a moment. The readers one guiding star, the gravity holding us down, is Therese’s love for Carol.
The middle section of the novel happens on the road as Carol takes Therese away from New York out East and it is here, away from their friends and responsibilities that their desire is fulfilled, they become lovers, and they are both allowed to be blissfully happy,
And she did not have to ask if this was right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.
And now their relationship shifts again, Carol becomes more dependent on Therese, we are sure of Therese’s love but it is not until Therese’s declaration of love that we know that Carol feels the same. But there is always the unknown quantity in her, just as it is to Therese, that mystery of course is where the intrigue and attraction lies.
The wider implications of Carol and Therese’s relationship play out in the friends and old lovers left behind in New York. Therese is surrounded by male attention, foremost her boyfriend Richard, who she cares little for but met at a party and was charming once. He is a painter but as Therese notes he hardly ever paints and one day will drop it easily. Similarly his friend Phil is an actor and playwright who has neither acted in or written a play. Both these ‘artistic’ men are pitted against Therese’s own artistry, she is a set-designer and subtly Highsmith shows how she succeeds through her own hard-work, and networkings despite her social anxiety.
She is initially helped by Phil to get her first job (the director rejecting her more innovate set in favour of a simplistic one) but she is not deterred and finds more work. Therese while unsure about her own ability or experience none-the-less succeeds, she works hard at her craft, practices, is determined and proves herself to be more creative than either of the men that pose to be such. It is notable too that it is Richard and Phil that display the more repulsive attitudes of misogyny. Richard refuses to acknowledge her attraction to Carol as serious at first and later turns bitter and vicious. But Highsmith is no ‘man-hater’ she gives us an example of the correct behaviour when male attention and attraction is rejected, or at least a better one, in Dannie, Phil’s brother. He makes an offer and is turned down, accepts that Therese’s love for Carol was real, that she will need time to get over her. Dannie’s assumption is still one that she will return to a ‘straight’ lifestyle, and hopefully with him.
What I like and what feels bold about this book is that Highsmith doesn’t offer to the reader a lesbian relationship and show the reader that it’s just like any love story between a man and a woman, she sets out to specifically explore the differences between two women in a relationship, the joys and the hardships, the realness of it. Therese doesn’t enjoy sex with men and is surprised at the pleasure she feels sleeping with Carol for the first time (there’s a very classy sex scene). Carol herself asserts it in even starker terms:
The most important point I did not mention and was not thought of by anyone [the male court panel] that the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman, and perhaps some people want just this, as other want that more shifting and uncertain thing that happens between men and women.
A radical statement: that same-sex relationships are more perfect that heterosexual ones. Never once does Highsmith shy away or apologise for this book, this complex and morphing relationship. But here, almost at the end, is the belief that this relationship will outlast and be more stable than Carol or Therese’s (potential) marriage to a man ever could be.
The ending then is hopeful, a rare ‘happy lesbian love story’ as Val McDermid notes. Therese and Carol emerge from the ending of their story as different people, the balance of power has shifted to a more even space, a moment of revelation and invitation that Therese walks towards.
This is easily one of my top reads this year, I feel like there are layers and layers to this book that will only reveal themselves on further re-readings.