boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
BOOK REVIEW

In her novels, Patricia Highsmith compellingly charts gay sensibility

(The Price of Salt; By Patricia Highsmith;Norton, 262 pp., paperback; $10)

(Small g: A Summer Idyll; By Patricia Highsmith;Norton, 310 pp.; $24.95)

Patricia Highsmith is no longer considered ''just" a crime writer. The short stories collected in two volumes (''The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith," 2001, and ''Nothing That Meets the Eye," 2002) reveal a woman as sensitive to her craft as Alice Munro. Andrew Wilson's biography, ''Beautiful Shadow," puts her in the artistic lineage of such modernist masters as Camus and Dostoevsky.

If that weren't enough to move her away from the criminal element, Norton has just released the two gay novels that almost bookend her career: the out-of-print ''The Price of Salt," her second novel, following ''Strangers on a Train," and ''Small g: A Summer Idyll," her last novel, which had never been published in the United States.

Not only do the two books begin and end her career as a writer, they all but trace the history of the gay rights movement. Neither is a mystery, although bad things lurk around nearly every corner. Atmospherically, there is the same sense of dread and neurosis as in the Ripley novels or ''This Sweet Sickness."

But there is also a real, galvanic sense of hope and happiness in the two books. You would have to be the most hysterical of homophobes to root against the two main characters of ''The Price of Salt." And I'm not sure I've ever seen the sense of gay-lesbian community described as compellingly as in ''Small g." (Alas, the ending of ''The Price of Salt" needs to be addressed, so you might want to read the book before finishing the review.)

Highsmith wrote ''The Price of Salt" in 1952 under a pseudonym. It tells the story of Therese, a young woman working in a department store, who falls under the thrall of Carol, an older, attractive married woman.

The relationship is sensually and sensitively drawn by Highsmith, who was drawing on her own experiences as a lesbian. She had almost been coerced into marriage as a young woman, even entering into therapy to straighten herself out, so to speak. She, too, became obsessed with a woman who came into Bloomingdale's, where she was temporarily working, and she even stalked the customer without ever meeting her. (It couldn't have turned out much worse for Kathleen Senn if she had met Highsmith, since she eventually committed suicide.)

Part of Highsmith's great skill as a writer was to describe her characters, no matter how transgressive, without appearing judgmental. That virtue is much in effect in ''The Price of Salt." Therese is as lost as any of Highsmith's protagonists, but the novel's heart neither bleeds over her nor condemns her.

The latter was revolutionary in 1952. You could write about lesbians, but they had to come to a bad end. To have Therese and Carol ride off together made the novel a cult classic, although it never found a wider niche. At least not until now, with the renewed interest in the author.

Highsmith charges the novel with a heightened description of the aforementioned sweet sickness of obsessive love: ''One could laugh at it with Carol. One could laugh at anything, with Carol." Or ''A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves."

Add some love-death imagery and you have a novel perpetually in danger of going overboard, but Highsmith was writing from the head as well as her own obsessive heart. The story is as skillfully plotted as ''The Talented Mr. Ripley." And as seductively, too. Therese and Carol were as meant for each other as Cinderella and the Prince.

By 1995, gays and lesbians not only dared to speak the name of their love, but Highsmith felt comfortable publishing a novel about homosexuality under her own name. Its title refers to how bars and bistros are listed in some guidebooks -- ''small g" meaning a gay, but not exculsively gay, clientele.

The two main characters, Rickie and Luisa, were both in love with the same man, who is murdered at the beginning of the novel. The platonic bond that forms between them is lovingly described by Highsmith, as is the camaraderie at Jakob's, the Zurich bar where everybody knows their name.

Not that there isn't a villain. Renate, Luisa's boss, hates homosexuals even though there's more than a hint that she has the hots for Luisa herself. That's in keeping with the ''Smiles of a Summer Night" feel of the book, as the more in love one becomes, the more impossible it seems to consummate that love.

As with Therese and Carol, Highsmith gets you rooting for both Rickie, who has been diagnosed with AIDS, and Luisa, who is being wooed by both a man and a woman. Gone, though, is the obsessiveness of ''The Price of Salt." In ''Small g," finished months before she passed away, there is an acceptance of limitations in love and life.

Nevertheless, the book is an idyll and full of romance -- though it could use more of the sensuality in ''The Price of Salt." As Teddie, the young man who falls for Luisa (and whom Rickie adores) says when he stumbles across Jakob's: ''Ending up in a strange neighborhood and dropping into a friendly bar and restaurant like Jakob's and meeting . . . a pretty girl and dancing with her. It's a whole new world."

The novel did start out as a crime story, but somewhere along the line Highsmith decided to leave us, instead, with this very sweet going-away present.

Ed Siegel is a member of the Globe staff.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives