The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) – a review

The Price of Salt (1952)

When The Price of Salt was published in 1952, it was a rarity in lesbian literature. Lesbian pulp novels were quite a thing, but in order to pass censors, one of the two protagonists had to either come to a bad end or realize that she was straight, after all.

The Price of Salt  by Patricia Highsmith was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Highsmith was at the start of a career writing thrillers about sociopaths (such as the one in her first book, Strangers on a Train, the basis for the 1951 Hitchcock film). T

he Price of Salt was an early departure from what was to be her preferred genre — psychological thrillers; it would remain an outlier among her works.

Highsmith was bisexual, and her novel about women falling in love became the basis of the film adaptation, retitled Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It would have been impossible to make a film of the novel upon its publication — Hollywood has always been more tolerant of violence than same-sex love stories on the screen.

Even revisiting this mid-century love story in 2015 wasn’t easy. “The challenge with Carol is that we’re viewing this same-sex relationship through the prism of a 2015 film,” Blanchett said in this Hollywood Reporter feature.

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Scene from Carol (2015 fim)

Scene from Carol (2015 film version of The Price of Salt)
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“These are desperately isolated women, not simply because of their sexual orientation but because they’re female in the 1950s, when there wasn’t a freedom of emotional speech around this stuff that there is today.”

Not many mainstream newspapers would have undertaken a critique of this controversial novel in its time; and so, the following review was surprisingly sensitive and sympathetic:


“Difficult Subject Delicately Treated”

From the original review in the Oakland Tribune (May 1952): The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (the pseudonym used by Patricia Highsmith for this book): This is a love story.

That is, it concerns the development from the first tentative attraction to compelling emotional involvement between two human beings, with the nuances of feeling, the crises and quandaries that beset them. The lovers are a sensitive, intense girl just emerging from her teens and a slightly older, more sophisticated woman.

It is a very considerable triumph for the author (who obviously knows what she is talking about) that she walks this tightrope without overbalancing into clinical case history or sociological indictment.

Judged as a novel, it is a far more subtle and persuasive performance than Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness which raised such a storm of controversy a couple of decades ago.

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The price of salt by Patricia Highsmith
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The predicaments of Carol and Therese are of the highly special sort determined by emotional natures at variance with the established mores. For many readers they will be altogether too special. But the two protagonists are individual persons, not statistics out of a Kinsey report, and it is as such that they command and hold our interest.

The subject matter may be, in general opinion, out of bounds, but the handling of it is on an altogether different level from the prevailing mawkishness and shrillness that alienates instead of inducing sympathetic understanding in the near-flood of stories from the other side of the fence.

Miss Morgan stands on firmer ground. She writes about human beings whose humanness is not circumscribed by their sex deviation, and she tells a story which is a story, not a wail or a tract.

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Patricia Highsmith

See also: Romantic Quotes from The Price of Salt
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More about The Price of Salt

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