Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis: The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.

Say hello to one of my all-time favourite books!

I don’t even know where to begin, I have so many feelings and thoughts about this, so let me start by telling you that this novel was loved from the moment it first came out in 1952. It wasn’t called Carol back then, but The Price of Salt, and Patricia Highsmith published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, because she claims she didn’t want to be known as a “lesbian-book writer”, but the lesbians loved it anyway. Why?

Because this was the first novel where the gay couple had a shot at happiness at the end of the story.

Sure, it can be argued that the ending of Highsmith’s novel isn’t all that happy, and we don’t really know what’s in store for Carol and Therese, but they don’t die, or go depressed and crazy, or have to try to lead a “normal” life. And even today, that is a big thing. Because the “bury your gays” trope is still there, and still annoyingly popular, so novels like this one are paperback pieces of hope for the LGBT community looking for better representation. Right from the start, Highsmith was praised for writing a story that lesbian women could identify with, and while we no longer live in the 1950s, having your sexuality held against you, as happens in the case of Carol, is something that many of us still have to deal with today. Not to mention figuring out the nature of your feelings for someone of your own gender for the first time, which is what Therese has to go through in the first half of the novel.

And Highsmith did something else, too. She changed the way lesbian women were viewed in society by going against the stereotypical portrayal, where one of the women in the relationship was expected to be visibly butch.

(Does anyone else’s mind wonder to one of the most annoying things lesbian couples get asked, “which one of you wears the pants/is the man in the relationship”? It makes me both happy to see how such a great book is still relevant today, yet this also saddens me, because after 60 years, it shows that not that much has changed regarding the LGBT community.)

I love the way she breaks this stereotype, too, because Highsmith doesn’t just simply make Carol sophisticated and then expects us to be impressed that her character isn’t butch, but she shows how ingrained this idea of the butch lesbian was in society by having Therese herself be amazed by Carol’s appearance: “She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that. Yet the way she felt about Carol passed all the tests for love and fitted all the descriptions.”

But being a relevant lesbian story is not the only thing that makes this novel so amazing. After all, as Highsmith is not simply a lesbian-book writer. She states that she planned the novel while having a fever, and while this might not actually have anything to do with the writing itself, “feverish” is definitely the word I would use to describe it. The writing is packed with details and action, and is just as intense as the plot itself. The story is gripping from the first sentence, and then it keeps you hooked like an addict, until your eyes are hurting and the words are swimming on the page and it’s so late you can no longer make out reality from fantasy. The novel provides a very intense reading experience, even if the writing style can be described as conversational (because, even though it may be packed with detail, it flows just as easily as a conversation). It really works, though, the seemingly laid back style with the intensity that it nevertheless depicts. It really brings the character’s feelings into a better perspective, allowing us to experience the confusion, disorientation and even obsession they might have felt, too – especially Therese, who has to deal with thoughts and emotions that are very new to her.

I have to admit that, as nuanced and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not always the most lovable. Although Carol seems amazing when looking at her through Therese’s eyes, I often found myself in a love-hate relationship regarding her while reading the book. There are times when she is simply cold and cruel. Therese herself isn’t that much better, she seems heartless towards people at times, especially towards her boyfriend. Yet it’s both of them, together, that I love the most. The moments they share together, when they can be themselves and joke or reveal secrets about their lives. Such moments, which might not be the ones where the two protagonists fell in love with each other, are the ones where I fell in love with them.

I greatly love the road trip setting that most of the novel offers. This feeling might have been fuelled by Kerouac’s On The Road, which I read prior to my first reading of this book, but it is on this trip that Therese matures in the way she loves Carol and the way she views the world. And it is this trip that reveals what it was like to be a lesbian woman in the 1950s, which are perceived as having been very restrictive times. However, from this novel alone, we can see that the times weren’t as we depict it today. Not only were people aware of homosexuality, but you could also find accepting communities, most clearly shown through Carol and Abby’s friendship, as well as through the interaction between the actress and Therese, whom she meets towards the end of the novel. Also, as the road trip shows, two women could share the same bed at a hotel and not draw attention to themselves, the possibility of them living together also being implied.

The road trip section of the novel also makes Highsmith’s talent for writing thrillers felt, from the gun in the suitcase all the way to the detective that follows them. And don’t you think a road trip to … nowhere, really, is a great metaphor for their relationship? They have no idea where they’ll end up, they have no guidance, not even a map like they do for the trip, and you could read even deeper into this and say that the detective following them is the views and expectations of society (ok, so I might be stretching it a bit here, but it could work, right?).

I will always be grateful to Highsmith for defying the norm and paving the way towards a more positive representation, not only for lesbian women but for the whole LGBT community. It is for this reason, and for her amazing writing, that her novel will surely win the hearts of many generations to come, too.

five-stars.png

 

 

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Synopsis: An exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life. Soon it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a bold, funny, live-out-loud guy, who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet forgets to count away the days and starts living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. This is a heart-wrenching, unflinching story of love shared, life lived, and two teens who find one another while standing on the edge.

This book was one that was constantly brought to my attention every time I seemed to completely forget about it, so in the end I finally decided to read it.

I have never been too keen on the book being advertised as the next The Fault in Our Stars, not because I have something with John Green, but because it ultimately uses the novel’s senstive subject matter of mental illness as a way of promoting the story, thus risking turining it into a sensational topic. But the general consensus among those who have read it is that it is worthwile, so I decided to look beyond what is, in my opinion, a questionable marketing strategy.

The novel has a very strong, gripping opening – the first line really sticks with you. It is a bit clichéic for me, but it did make me want to read on, even if only for the sake of seeing if the clichés continue. As the synopsis says, the book opens with the main characters meeting on the bell tower of their high school, which throws the reader right in the thick of the action.

The story follows Violet and Theodore Finch, who take turns being narrators, and who are both in a really bad place when we first meet them on that bell tower. The friendship that unfolds between them shows readers how two very different people can come together in the best of ways, even if they are brought together by an unfortunate situation.

I took an immediate liking to Finch. Beyond the synopsis description of him being a guy who constantly comes up with ways to kill himself, he is complex and rich – a very well rounded character, with whom it’s really easy to engage. He manages to encompass the contradictions that take over when you suffer from depression – his constant need to stay alive, while being unable to stop himself from thinking about the ways other people have commited suicide. Violet is similarly having a hard time coming to terms with her sister having passed away, and the way she has retreated in her shell as a result of it is something that I really appreciate, because it feels like such a realistic reaction to such a traumatic event. I love the way their love doesn’t just happen, but progresses from friendship, and the way their journey across Indiana to discover their state also turns into a journey of self-discovery. I am also a huge fan of the fact that they use Virginia Woolf quotes.

However, as much as I loved the characters and their journey, there are a few things which I was not pleased with. Firstly, while for the most part, the book is hopeful regarding mental illness, the ending throws that away (it is also pretty predictable thanks to the structure of the book). Moreover, recovering from mental illness is, in my opinion, treated problematically in the novel. There is no mention of any medication that might help, Finch’s mental illness remains undiagnosed and therapists are portrayed in a pretty negative light. So, while the book seems helpful to someone who knows people that are struggling with mental illness, it does not do too much for those who are suffering from it.

What really, really bothered me the most, however, is the way no one tries to figure out what is wrong with Finch. His problems are mostly ignored by his friends and family. And while he is actively helping Violet move past the trauma that holds her stuck in the past, no-one is putting in a similar effort for him. He is fighting against his issues by himself. The final part of the book, especially, becomes about Violet rather than Finch and what he has been going through. While I am aware that there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, I did hope that the novel would fight against that in order to show that we should at least try to understand and attempt to help someone who is suffering from it.

Despite this, I really enjoyed the novel, and I am certain that Finch will forever remain on my list of most beloved book characters. I do really recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of John Green-like novels (yes, the promo is right in this comparison, to some extent). I personally look forward to reading more novels by Jennifer Niver.

3-stars

Female characters you NEED in your life

Female characters you NEED in your life

Happy International Women’s Day to all the amazing, lovely, badass ladies out there! What better occasion than this day, dedicated to celebrating and empowering women, than to talk about my favourite fictional females of all time? There are many to whom I have looked up to throughout my life – they have helped me improve my self-confidence, overcome struggles with body image or societal expectations. I owe a lot to the books I read, the movies and shows I watch, and the characters I find in them, which is why I feel like the world needs to know and celebrate more the importance of female characters and the impact that they can have on their readers.

From books:

  • Matilda ( Matilda by Roald Dahl) – As the first role model that I ever had in my life, Matilda is truly one of a kind. Teaching children that adults are not always right is a very important lesson, which I had not encountered before. Matilda is also always true to herself and not afraid to show it; she doesn’t let anyone try to change who she is. Plus, who could hate a girl who loves to read? The book’s wonderful message that knowledge is power has stuck with me throughout my life.
  • Hermione Granger (the Harry Potter franchise by J.K Rowling) – Hermione is the one who taught me that there was no shame in being called an overachiever, or being labelled a bookworm. Being interested in your academical success is important, and Hermione is a reminder of that. However, she also reminds us that life is not only about “books and cleverness”, but also about friendship and bravery. She nails those too, even Ron admits it: “We wouldn’t last two days without her.”
  • Jo March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott) – I love all the March sisters and what they stand for. However, Jo is the one that really stood out to me. She doesn’t fit into the gender norms that society ascribed, she doesn’t settle for things that are simply expected of her – she only agrees to the things she wants – and never forgets her family and friends, even while fighting for her dreams.Above all, she is a writer (I have a weak spot for them)!
  • Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) – I feel like it would not be an overstatement to claim that Elizabeth Bennet can be considered one of the most respected female heroines in English literature – she is that awesome. She is intelligent, witty and incredibly passionate about her beliefs. She gives little thought to the opinions of others regarding her character. Of course, she still has flaws (she judges others very easily, is dismissive when others do things that she disapproves of, and is rather bad at adapting to different situations) which many have labelled as her way of rejecting the repressive standards of her time. This might be true, but those flaws make her story compelling and interesting, and show that being flawed adds to one’s character rather than takes away from it.
  • Celie (The Colour Purple by Alice Walker)Women’s rights sit at the heart of Walker’s novel, but this theme shines through Celie. She has to suffer through emotional and physical abuse, but she never complains about any of the injustice done to her; she simply wonders why it exists. Her self-worth, of which there is little in the beginning of the novel, grows immensely as the narrative progresses, and she ends up a confident woman by the end. This is mostly thanks to the amazing female friendships that are portrayed in the novel – Shug encourages Celie to grow stronger psychologically and Sofia shows Celie how to stand up to men and to prejudice and injustice. The emotional strength that Celie shows , her perseverance and ferocious love for her sister are traits that make Celie a truly unforgettable character.

From movies:

  • Mulan (Mulan) – How many people would give up their whole life (name, identity, their home and its comforts, the familiarity of their surroundings) and go fight in the war for their father? Mulan did it without a second thought, something that stuck with me since the first time I saw the Disney movie. Her bravery left me speechless, not to mention the fact that Mulan was also the first movie I saw where the girl saves the guy and there’s no waiting around for the prince. I am very glad this is something that can be found in several Disney movies now.
  • Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) – Quirky, fun and an inspiration to women everywhere. Whatever doubts people might have about Elle’s character are shattered from the moment she sets her mind on going to Harvard and never gives up her goal until it is achieved. Despite everyone’s doubts, she not only makes it to Harvard, she also makes it to the top of the class. She never shies away from calling people out for their preconceptions of her due to her looks, she is supportive of her friends, and always remains true to herself. Take that from a “dumb blonde”!
  • Bridget Jones (Briget Jones’ Diary) – There is a lot of dispute around whether or not Bridget Jones is a good role model to have, especially as a feminist. Without wanting to get into that debate, I will say that I have always liked Bridget Jones. She is a very refreshing character to see on-screen. She is much more realistic than other rom-com heroines; she is a pretty relatable woman in search of love. I appreciate her awkwardness the most, and the way she handles that. Life is not always pretty and smooth, and other than creating a moment of comedy, Bridget’s slip-ups remind us that they are a normal occurrence. What’s also important to acknowledge is that every time Bridget says the wrong thing, she always manages to recover. As the saying goes, “fall down seven times, stand up eight” – Bridget Jones is the embodiment of that, which is why I will always appreciate her character.
  • Belle (Beauty and the Beast) – I have a real love for bookworms (in case this was not evident by now) and it will come as no surprise that Belle is my favourite Disney princess of all time. She appreciates the value of knowledge, looks beyond appearances and values personality. She doesn’t fall for the first guy that sets eyes on her, loves her father and sacrifices her freedom for him, , and, just like Mulan, ends up doing the saving instead of needing to be saved. Which is why I am loving the fact that Belle will be played by Emma Watson in the live action movie – there’s no one better suited to fill Belle’s shoes. The remake also turns Belle into an inventor – what a role model for girls everywhere!
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) – Katniss is worth of admiration right from the start, through her love for her sister and her selflessness. She truly inspires to believe in personal strength, and in the change that can result from a single person. Despite adversity, she still did what was right, even when that proved not to be easy. Her perseverance and her strong will are what drew me to her, and what make her the heroine that she is.

From TV Shows:

  • Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) – When it comes to empowering female characters, look no further than Leslie Knope. From her wall of inspirational women, to her fierce love for her friends, it just doesn’t get better than Leslie. She does not tolerate mansplaining, she is ready to put privileged men in their place, she fights for sexual education and is hilarious in every single episode. If you are looking for a perfect woman, her name is Leslie Knope.
  • Donna Paulsen (Suits) – I am yet to find a person who is not in love with Donna. She might be known due to her working for Harvey Specter, but she is so much more than that. She is extremely perceptive, knows everything that happens in the firm and has a sharper wit than everyone else’s put together. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and is not afraid to use them in her advantage. Everyone, from the associates to the partners, respects but also fears her. Donna is truly a force of nature. On top of all this, she is also an amazing friend, and fiercely loyal. I think everyone should strive to be like Donna.
  • Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) – Arya Stark was a favourite of mine since the beginning of the show. She clearly has no interest to fit into the role that society has deemed for her, that of a lady. She excels at male oriented activities such as archery, does not “dress to impress” but rather does it for personal comfort and she doesn’t let people talk down to her. She is independent and fierce, and everyone loves her for it.
  • Eleven (Stranger Things) – It took Eleven only one week to escape from a highly secure secret organisation that was holding her hostage, learn the true meaning of friendship, and save an innocent child from being killed by a horrible monster through personal sacrifice. That already shows how much love, compassion and strength she possesses. She doesn’t let her gender determine how she goes about her life, acting on what she thinks she should be rather than what society expects her to be. She goes against the idea that girls are the ones that need to be saved, and ends up being the saviour instead. She also sets an example to everybody through her interactions with male characters in the show, not allowing them to walk over her or dictate her behaviour.
  • Kala Dandekar (Sense8) – Here you have an Indian woman who works as a scientist for a major pharmaceutical company in Mumbai – this alone makes her an inspiration already. However, she does not stop there. Throughout the series, she uses her scientific skills on several occasions to save the other characters – she makes a bomb using simple kitchen supplies and knows what drugs to use to wake people from medically induced comas. It can not get more badass than that!