Rereading Patricia Highsmith’s eerie romance-as-thriller

51xOraJSN9LTerry Castle at Bookforum:

Much as I love this dizzyingly erotic book, there’s something magnificently bogus about this ending: an inauthenticity that becomes even more glaring when one sees the events recast in précis. The Price of Salt was partly inspired by a chance meeting Highsmith had while working at Bloomingdale’s in December 1948, an episode that in real life went nowhere. A glamorous blonde in furs asked Highsmith for assistance, and Highsmith at once became almost insanely infatuated, making two unsuccessful stalker-like trips to New Jersey to find (and presumably spy on) the object of her coup de foudre. The novel is exactly what didn’thappen between Highsmith and her own “Mrs. Aird.” And the fantasy goes still further: It emerges that not only is newly divorced Carol gorgeous, rich, and the proud possessor of a chic new apartment in uptown Manhattan (so long, New Jersey suburbs), she’s also a scholarly expert on antique furniture and plans to set up her own upscale shop. Simultaneously, a series of lucrative set-design gigs with renowned avant-garde Russian directors in exile fall into Therese’s lap. You can easily conjure up the future iterations of such mutual good fortune: Therese and Carol—artsy (if still discreet) power couple of lesbian Manhattan! Yum.

In an intriguing aside in The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009), the second and far more freewheeling of the two Highsmith biographies to date, Joan Schenkar notes that lesbian producer-director and Actors Studio member Terese Hayden wished, somewhat perversely, to adapt The Price of Salt for the stage as a heterosexual love story, in which the Carol figure would be changed into a man named Carl. That the idea fizzled is a good thing: Making the story over into banal heterosexualia strikes one as bathos exemplified.

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