Max is fond of reminding me that novels generally ought to open with a glimpse -- however brief -- of the status quo. If we, the readers, are going to follow these characters for 200+ pages, and feel a sense of closure at the end of whatever journey they were on, we have to know where they started. This is just how we think about narrative. If I told you "Hey, I walked all the way to the Safeway in Albequerque!" you wouldn't think that was impressive unless you already knew I live in Los Angeles.
Patricia Highsmith definitely starts this book out on a status quo note -- though not the status quo of her main character, Therese Belivet. And this is, of course, the point.
We first meet Therese during the lunch hour at Frankenberg's Department Store, where she's an employee for the Christmas rush season. She's all alone, sitting at one of the long linoleum tables, reading the "Welcome to Frankenberg's" guide over and over again because she just has nothing better to do. She's miserable, lonesome, and in a bad relationship. Welcome to women's fiction in the 50s! We are all disaffected!
And this is where The Price of Salt gets a little bit different. Therese is not, say, Esther Greenwood. She is not at all deceived by her surroundings. She knows exactly how horrible it is to be a woman in 1950s America, and she wishes so desperately that she could escape. For Therese, the status quo is trying to escape. Therese is perpetually, continually trying to run away.
So, what's she running from? Nearly everything, it seems. She's an aspiring theatre set designer (spoiler alert, but it's not that big of a spoiler) who's been out of work for a while now. So she wants to run away from the disappointments of her failed career to something more mindless, like Frankenberg's. But Frankenberg's feels like a prison, and she can't stop seeing the world through the eyes of a set designer. ("What kind of set would one make for a play that took place in a department store? She was back again.") She can't bear to be alone, so she is dating Richard. But she can't bear to be with Richard, so she is continually pushing him away, finding excuses not to see him, doing her best to avoid seeing him while still holding the idea of him in her head as a safeguard against the solitary fate of Mrs. Robichek. She knows what she's running from. She just has no idea what to run to!
And here we have the main problem of the story presenting itself. It doesn't quite fall into the typical Feminine Mystique narrative (as I described it last time). Therese is smart, and she knows how unhappy she is. She also knows enough to know that she needs to find a solution to her problem. But she is only 19, and casting about gamely is pretty much the best solution she's come up with.
On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Mrs. Robichek, who is thankfully (for the sake of all our mental health) a minor character. Seriously, the entire sequence is one of the most heartwrenching I've ever read, and I feel a literal ache in my stomach reading about her efforts to get into bed. Mrs. Robichek is the pathetic and lonely aging person that everyone has known at one point or another. She's a Mrs., which means that there was a Mr. at one point or another, but there's no sign of him (or, incidentally, of any children) and no hint of where he's gone. She used to own her own business, but had to give it up when her vision started to deteriorate.
Like I said, everyone knows that truly pitiable old person. When I was growing up, it was literally every one of my neighbors. We lived in one of those neighborhoods built during the Baby Boom to house the young soldiers returning from Europe, and most of the houses were still occupied by the original buyers. (That's completely different now, of course.) And no matter how awesome they are, and how much you like hanging out with them -- which is, in my experience, quite a lot, especially when they have pianos and extensive mystery fiction libraries -- there will be a moment in your life when you think to yourself, "Holy shit, if I don't get my life together I am going to end up alone and tragic."
Like Bridget Jones or Lori Gottlieb. Except melodramatic and horrifying. (Okay, horrifying on purpose.)
And that's where Therese left us this week.
Max and I have been reading it aloud together, and when we got to the end of the chapter he was just kind of quiet for a while, and then said "Holy shit that was depressing." I convinced him that it does get better, but he's still dubious.
And on that incredibly cheerful note...I swear, you guys, the book gets better. And ends happily! If you're doubtful, just read Patricia Highsmith's postscript. Full of it-ends-happily testimonials.