Aspiring set designer Therese Belivet is working in the toy section at a New York department store until her boyfriend’s friend comes through with the theater job he’s promised he can get her. She finds waiting on the pushy, demanding mothers unfulfilling and doesn’t seem to fit in with the other ladies who work at the store. Then right before Christmas a woman comes in to buy her daughter a doll and for reasons she doesn’t fully understand Therese is captivated. Before she can change her mind she sends the woman a Christmas card.
If you’ve seen the movie Carol you can fill in the rest. The novel is told from Therese’s perspective, and Highsmith does a wonderful job getting inside her head, following the rush of her affection and her need for Carol’s validation. Therese is overwhelmed by the power of her feelings for Carol and uncertain how to proceed. It’s a powerfully evocative depiction of first love.
Carol and Therese’s relationship takes shape on a cross-country road trip the two take together, enjoying the freedom from their families and friends back in New York. Like all holidays, though, it can’t last forever and the intrusion of real world concerns is heartbreaking and cruel.
Though the plot is somewhat slight, Highsmith’s elegant prose and frank exploration of a forbidden relationship make The Price of Salt an enduring classic.