Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.
Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:
Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.
Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.
The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.
Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.
I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?