The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (New York: Dover Publications, 2015; originally published in 1952. 256 pp)

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921. She studied English composition, playwriting, and short story at Barnard College. Highsmith wrote 22 novels during her career, including Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. She died in 1995.

Who Are You?

Identity is a tricky thing. When I was younger, I worried consistently about goodness. Did I possess good qualities inherently? Did I need to work for them? What did it take to be good? With a constant focus on these identity questions, I never felt whole. I had nothing obviously hindering me from living a decent life, but my innermost thoughts encountered troubles. What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not worthy of love?

Certainly, some of these feelings emerge from the institutional theories of change in my life. When sin is a widespread menace, it’s easy to believe in inadequacy.

Living in Your Skin

In recent years, I’ve begun to realize the value and principle importance of living in your own skin. Understanding and realizing your inherent capacities allows for you to flourish in your community and your relationships.

Of course, such a position does not mean a rejection of right and wrong. It also does not reflect a position where criticism or growth becomes problematic. But, it does suggest that your identity matters. That your life ought to maximize who you are, not reformat you toward some generic ideal.

With these principles in mind, The Price of Salt focuses on questions of identity.

Therese and Carol

Set in the mid-century, prim and proper East-Coast milieu, the novel focuses on two key characters: Therese and Carol.

A young artist, Therese makes ends meet through her sales job at a department store. Her passion, however, focuses on set design. In an ideal world, she would find a commission for a Broadway play. She lives day to day, lukewarm to the vision her boyfriend, Richard, has for her life.

Carol, a wealthy suburbanite going through a divorce, represents the other key figure in the story. Her discontent with the nuclear-family life draws her to the mysterious Therese during a shopping trip in the city.

One thank-you note from Therese later, the women bond and a friendship emerges.

Emotional Turmoil

As the relationship deepens, Therese begins to wonder about the source of her feelings for Carol and how they differ from her emotions toward Richard.

“Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot” (142).

Ultimately, the relationship veers toward tension as Carol’s messy divorce forces decisions between happiness and family.

The Price of Salt represents an early entry into LGBTQ literature; I found its themes of identity compelling. We’re all searching for who we really are and The Price of Salt illustrates the turmoil behind such pursuits. A worthy read.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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