This is a beautiful, understated yet at the same time intense, love story set in the America of the late 1940s and remarkable because, at the time, writing about a lesbian couple was very much a rarity. Carol is a 30 something glamorous, sophisticated wearer of a mink coat who captures the attention of 21 year old set designer and shop girl Therese when she is buying a doll for her daughter, Rindy. Therese sends Carol a Christmas card, then the two go for a drink. It’s not long before Therese is besotted, though Highsmith keeps us guessing about whether Carol reciprocates or is just striking up a friendship. Even when Carol invites Therese to go on a road trip with her, ostensibly to escape a difficult divorce and custody battle over Rindy, Carol’s feelings are opaque. Therese, on the other hand, is increasingly open about her infatuation, including to her fiance, Richard. Despite the promise of exciting work opportunities in film and theatre, she takes off with Carol.
Highsmith’s pacing of the unfurling relationship is masterful and, as the women’s road trip gets underway, you can feel the sexual tension mounting with each town they pass through. When they do finally make love, it’s intense and sweet, much like Therese herself. Briefly the pair enjoy what they have found – “together they possessed a miracle” – but before long the outside world intrudes on their intimacy, most notably in the shape of a detective sent by Carol’s husband to search for dirt with which to blackmail her in court.
High drama ensues and Carol is forced to return home to New York to face the music, leaving a heartbroken Therese to reflect on her decision to cut all ties with Richard and spend the rest of her life with Carol. Impetuous and selfish, she worries hugely about Carol’s loyalty and, freed, from the intoxication of her presence, rapidly starts to see her lover in a very different light, dwelling on the moments when she was cold, aloof and angry. When the pair are finally reunited things have changed irrevocably, and the women decide to confront the difference between infatuation and love.
Highsmith does detail and emotion with incredible confidence – a broken milk bottle in a sink is juxtaposed with hope and dreams described as a “bright forest with a million shimmering leaves”; at one point Therese is so knocked off balance by Carol she cannot wrap her head around the eight cents change she’s given from buying a newspaper. Highsmith also skilfully evokes time, place and person – despite knowing Rooney Mara plays Therese in the film adaptation of Carol, in my mind she is conjured perfectly, from a physical perspective, as an Audrey Hepburn lookalike. I sometimes found Therese a bit too anxious and in need of validation, whilst Carol sense of hew own allure borders on arrogance, but it’s a joy to read a novel where the writer obviously loves and admires the strong women characters she has created on the page.
Inspired loosely by the Highsmith’s own experiences, this is a book that, read today, easily transcends the same sex relationship at its heart, despite that being a significant factor in the determination of Carol and Therese’s future. It’s simply a well told, though always ill fated, love story. I suspect it loses some of it’s power as a result, and any reader at the time it was first published would have had a very different experience. But that doesn’t detract from what a brave novel it is – honest, simple and, decades later, fresh. I liked it a lot.