I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.
Carol, by Patricia Highsmith
Whenever I consume any form of media, whether books, TV shows, or movies, I tend to focus on the representation of women (or, sometimes, the lack thereof). At times I have trouble reconciling my love for a show or book and its questionable treatment of women (East of Eden, Breaking Bad). At times, I find a work that presents complex, interesting, realistic female characters, but suffers from plot and thematic issues. I don’t need (or even want) female characters to be paragons of virtue; I prefer realistic, clever, flawed, sometimes selfish women.
In the past few weeks, as I read Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, I found myself consuming other media with women at its center: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, and Jessica Jones, both on Netflix. All three feature women as their protagonists, women who mostly fulfill my criteria of being realistic and flawed. The two women at the center of Carol are Therese Belivet, a passive and timid young woman attempting to start her career as a set designer, and Carol Aird, the object of her affections. I loved that I felt ambivalent about these women even as I sympathized with their situation. Therese was often frustratingly passive, while I found Carol overtly manipulative, brusque, and unkind. I felt the same about the characters in Gilmore Girls and Jessica Jones as well: they tended to create problems for themselves, and acted selfishly to get what they wanted. People often complain about characters who are too selfish, especially when it comes to female characters, but I find selfishness refreshing and realistic. It’s easy to care for a character with good intentions, but great writing makes you continue to care about a story that centers around a self-serving protagonist.
What I enjoyed about Carol, Gilmore Girls, and Jessica Jones was the focus on relationships between women, whether it be romantic like Therese and Carol, familial as in Gilmore Girls, and the numerous friendships and symbiotic relationships in Jessica Jones. A lot of media is noticeably lacking when featuring realistic female characters, and even more lacking when portraying relationships between women. Relationships between women are often reduced to familial relationships or that of romantic rivals. Even in Breaking Bad, which is one my favorite TV shows and often listed as one of the greatest shows of all time, the only noticeable relationship between two women is that between Skylar and her sister, Marie. For me, the fact that a show with such a wide cast of characters only really showcases one relationship between women is troublesome. Meanwhile, in less than 300 pages, Carol describes a complex and realistic affair between two women at different stages in their lives.
That being said, Carol is an enjoyable read, perfectly set in 1950s New York, yet still relevant today with its focus on a same-sex relationship and the associated stigma. Therese’s aimlessness and inability to find work as a young woman in her early twenties is also painfully relatable. It’s not the most exciting of reads to be sure, but I enjoyed its take on the relationships between women.
YES OR NO?: YES. Carol is a short, enlightening read. As a fan of Cate Blanchett, I’ll be looking forward to watching the film adaptation as well.