It’s the 1950’s. Therese is 19, an aspiring stage designer living in New York. But like many young women her age with lofty dreams, she finds herself in a place she believes she didn’t belong – a department store, working as a sales assistant. She rents her own place, sees a man who adores her but whom she doesn’t love. She is anxious and unhappy.
One morning, an elegant woman in her 30s walks onto the floor, and Therese is shocked by the intensity of the attraction she feels toward her. This is Carol, and later on Therese will send a Christmas card to her address, and Carol will invite her to lunch.
I first encountered Patricia Highsmith’s writing via her famous novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley is a beguiling suspense novel. Carol reads like a thriller in the sense that, thanks to Highsmith’s mastery over plot and language, you have no idea what will happen next. You’ve read your share of gay stories, and you know how most of them end. Will they live apart and in misery, will they commit suicide together, will they find love in the arms of a “good man”? Or will something else happen? Something better? Something worse? With Highsmith, you just can’t tell.
But Carol is a love story, and in some ways, a coming-of-age story. A fiercely intelligent one. I read it continuously for two days, and the closing paragraphs took my breath away.