With a herculean effort, Eleanor managed to wrench open the jammed window in their apartment, letting the June breeze waft through the room. Thick beams of the sun hit the floor, the couch, and Dania’s open eyes.
“Gahh!” Dania recoiled, shielding her eyes. “The light!”
“I’ll close the blinds in a second,” Eleanor promised. She carefully reached out the window, attaching the ends of a purple, white, grey, and black flag to the windowsill. It billowed in the breeze as she shut the blinds, blocking out the light.
“Well,” she added, with a clap of her hands. “Pride Month can begin!”
“Congrats,” Dania grinned, slyly. “I’ll alert the media that you’ve given your decree.”
Eleanor smirked, but sat down silently. It was her first Pride Month since coming out in October. It should have felt more different, she thought to herself. Am I queer enough? The doubt persisted, despite the barrage of inclusive messaging she imbibed through Instagram.
Gwen, for her part, had kicked off Pride Month a week ago, with the suggestion that the trio read Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. The book, originally published in 1952 under a pseudonym and marketed as a pulp romance, had recently gained more cultural analysis. There had even been a film adaptation –– 2015’s Carol, boasting none other than Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the lovers Carol and Therese.
“Did you see the film adaptation?” Eleanor had asked.
“Not yet,” Gwen answered. “I feel I should read the book first.”
Thus, in preparation for the coming month, the trio had all dug into Highsmith’s romance novel, and prepared for discussing it as soon as Gwen returned from working the opening shift.
“Have you watched Carol yet?” Dania asked, as Eleanor sat on the couch.
“Not yet,” replied Eleanor. “I figured we’d watch it with Gwen.”
Dania glanced away nervously, prompting Eleanor to follow up. “Have you watched it?”
“Oh, I watched it right after reading it,” Dania said, with faux nonchalance. “It’s a pretty close adaptation from the book. The sex is more literal, and more dull than in the book.”
“Well, certainly,” Eleanor said. “In the book, all the sex is abstract poetry. I’d be hard to convert that to anything other than…whatever’s literally happening.”
“Maybe it would be a good play,” Dania said. “Gwen loves non-literalism.”
Eleanor laughed. “Perhaps.”
Dania looked to the front door –– unmoved, and silent as the air in the apartment. She was loathe to discuss the book in too much detail before Gwen arrived, but the tumult of the romance had unseated some desire to share the story. Perhaps not with Eleanor and Gwen. Perhaps with people who didn’t know the book at all.
“Did you have a favorite moment?” Eleanor asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes, I did,” Dania started. In her mind, she quickly narrowed down the candidates: Carol’s introduction in the toy store, with its imperceptible flirtations; Therese’s devastating meeting with Danny; the wild goose chase through the American West. The imagery in Highsmith’s novel leapt through the mind as the story progressed. Dania figured most of these would come up in discussion, and instead chose something smaller.
“I really love the moment when Therese writes the letter to Carol about how she feels,” she answered. “The one she would never send. And it’s all poetry and confusion since she doesn’t have any words to describe what she’s feeling for her.”
“That moment was brilliant for me,” Eleanor agreed. “Like, we take for granted now the idea of true love feeling impossible, or indescribable. The idea that when you meet the right person, it throws everything else into shadow. So clearly establishing her standard for love with Richard, then turning the tables on it with what is obviously a love letter –– it’s a clear way to get across how twisted Therese’s worldview is.”
“Sure,” Dania said. “It’s just a very good way of writing it. And that it comes back? Normally, if a character just wrote out their feelings or something, it might be a little lazy. But because what she writes is so different than everything she’s said before then, and because the letter does become a plot point later in the book…”
“Right!” Eleanor agreed. “That’s something I hadn’t noticed before; it’s a very tightly written book. There’s nothing in the story that doesn’t need to be there. Even the small details come back as development for the Therese/Carol relationship later in the story.”
Dania recalled, and smiled. “It’s really about Therese opening up to the world overall,” she added. “The business with her sending gifts to Mrs. Robichek? That feels like a significant departure from earlier in the story.”
“Well, let’s not say the gay portion of the narrative isn’t central to it,” cautioned Eleanor. “But there is a lot there…”
“I mean, it’s not entirely central,” Dania said. “Yes, it’s primarily a story about a lesbian romance, but there’s something greater in the search for a connection during this––”
The front door swung open, and Gwen’s entrance cut off Dania’s point.
“Hello, all! Happy Pride Month!”
“Happy Pride Month, Gwen,” Eleanor said. “We were just discussing The Price of Salt, if you want to join.”
Gwen’s smile fell to a mock scowl. “You said you wouldn’t start without me!”
“I know, I know,” Dania said admonishingly. “There’s just so much to discuss in it.”
“I agree.” Gwen dropped her bag by the coats and plopped down in a chair. “What was the last point made?”
“Well, we were just starting a discussion about whether or not the story was centered on a lesbian romance, or something else,” Eleanor said.
“Or something else?” Gwen inquired. “What else would it be centered on?”
“Not that it’s not about a romance, obviously,” Dania defended. “Just that the moral of the book is about more than just gay rights or feelings.”
“Well, that I might agree with.”
“She’s not wrong!” Gwen said. “The thread that ties the whole book together is Therese becoming a more self-reliant person. That’s why the narrative doesn’t end when she breaks off with Carol. She has to identify her wants and needs before coming back at the very end.”
“All the stuff about sending gifts to Mrs. Robichek, too,” Dania added. “How Therese wouldn’t have done that at the beginning.”
“Another example, yes,” Gwen agreed. “Carol has to change and be honest with herself, too, but Therese is the one we follow.”
“Well, it is Pride Month, so let’s not erase the fact that they’re lesbians in a 1950s novel,” Eleanor repeated. “It’s an important detail.”
“Certainly,” Gwen said. “That’s likely why it was published as a pulp romance in 1952. No major publisher would take the risk on a lesbian couple in a nationally-published book. If Highsmith hadn’t also written The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s unclear whether or not this book would have been eventually reprinted and received the attention it has.”
“The writing is higher than pulp, I’d think, though,” Eleanor said.
“Well, what does that mean?” Dania asked. “Chasing A Brighter Blue was pulp, and I loved that book.”
“‘Pulp fiction’ is a difficult term to define,” Gwen mused. “‘General reading’ gets tossed around, but essentially it’s a logistical term. It’s a readable book that doesn’t get too heady or analytical. Easy to read for people who aren’t searching for subtext.”
Dania looked askance, crossing her arms. “Well, then, it’s no wonder I enjoyed it.”
“I don’t think Gwen’s saying the subtext isn’t there,” Eleanor added. “Just that you can read the book on a surface level and understand it fine. Compare something like…I don’t know, The Great Gatsby, and it’s all metaphor all the time.”
“It’s a subjective appellation, at that,” Gwen said. “The Price of Salt started as pulp, but got a proper branding later when people dug into the subtleties.”
“Actually, Chasing A Brighter Blue isn’t a bad one to compare with,” Dania said. “That is a book with its romance at the center. Everything they do in that book is about the lesbian romance: putting it together, the prejudice around it, building chemistry, being alone, lots and lots of day drinking…”
“That one is set in the modern day, though,” Eleanor said. “The prejudices are less than they would have been in the 1950s.”
“They’re…not, though,” Dania said. “Not in the book. There’s actually much more open hostility towards the queer relationship in Chasing A Brighter Blue, because it has to be. Homophobia no longer being a given for the public, the villain in The Price of Salt isn’t people who don’t like gay people. It’s more like, you know, the assumption that a gay relationship won’t be tolerated.”
“Which, naturally, it wouldn’t in that time,” Gwen agreed. “This is what we mean when we say it’s not central. The tension keeping Carol and Therese apart –– and then together after they admit that they’re in love –– is a social understanding that this is a forbidden love entirely. It’s more about prejudice than it is about love.”
“Admittedly,” Dania interjected, sensing Eleanor’s own thoughts bubbling. “A prejudice based on queer fear. Obviously. Not taking that away.”
“Perhaps,” Eleanor finally said, giving the moment time to settle. “It’s still very gay, though.”
Dania shrugged. “It can’t not be.”
“It does hold up surprisingly well, reading it now,” Gwen said. “Highsmith communicates especially well the feeling of living in a society when queer relationships were simply not allowed. It’s dated, sure, but the tension never went away.”
“I suppose I would accept the reading that it’s not so much about the formation of a queer relationship as Chasing A Brighter Blue is,” Eleanor said. “But it’s certainly about the formation of a queer identity. I think that’s instrumental to understanding Therese’s growth. She’s learning what it is to be a queer person. Even after she leaves Carol, that’s the final piece of herself she has to understand. That sort of coding could only be written by a queer author, and wouldn’t be picked up by most audiences.”
“Rendering the novel essentially ‘pulp fiction,’ right?” Gwen asked.
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “It’s only pulp for the straights.”
Image Source: Rakuten Kobo