The first startling thing about these two novels, pioneering lesbian Bildungsromans, first published in the same year, under pseudonyms, by two writers who would go on to have a two-year affair seven years later, is how even more similar they are than this would suggest.
Quite amusingly, both novels feature analogs of their authors as their protagonists; the backgrounds and physical descriptions of Salt's 19-year-old Therese and Fire's 17yo Mitch are not too terribly far from those of their authors, particularly at those ages; the cover painting of Mitch (with her paramour Leda) also rather resembles the young Meaker, on staff at Gold Medal when she submitted her first novel (which this was, though it was quickly followed by her second, Dark Intruder ; Salt was Highsmith's second, after Strangers on a Train ). Further, both protagonists fall into mutual love at first sight, or at least something more than simply mutually lustful intrigue, with an older, more high-status woman in the midst of stressful coping with a new, ridiculously artificial environment--Mitch is matriculating at a university and being pledged to a sorority, Therese as a harassed new toy-department clerk at a massive and stuffy department store of the type common in the era. (Of course, this sort of encounter strokes the intended reader in at least two ways--the romance-fiction trope of the immediately-recognized soulmate, and the gaydar click--though different terms would've been used in 1952, such as mutual recognition--of being either two of the only or the only two "deviants" in the social milieu they find themselves in, and the stirring of previously unfulfilled need particularly in our heroines.) Now, we learn this much in the space of the first few pages of both novels; I will now warn you that next paragraph will be filled with "spoiler" citations. After that paragraph, things will get more vague and sweeping, or at least less keyed to the novels' events, again.
There's a bit of a dance, as Therese gingerly pursues department-store customer Carol, after Carol makes at least some kind of interest clear, and Mitch seeks ways to get to know Leda, who in her turn is quite happy to have Mitch room with her in the sorority house; both the older women consistently condescend to their new acquaintances, noting how little of the world they seem to know. Therese has a fiance, Richard, a somewhat spoiled man-boy who is very proud of how patient he's been with Therese, only having had three or so sexual encounters with her, all of them unpleasant for her; Mitch soon attracts the attentions of spoiled frat-boy Bud, who alternately sullenly and unctuously plies her with alcohol, and gropingly molests her on their first date, and rapes her on the second, yet is traumatized himself by her contempt for him after the rape, which he apparently saw as seduction. The older women, Carol being about thirty, Leda being a senior to Mitch's frosh, have steady men in their lives, about whom they have mixed feelings at best--Carol's husband Harge, rather a petty dictator who hopes to control Carol, but can't quite, and Leda's steady, Jake, a somewhat less insane character than Bud, but one who is quite content with a rather blatant sex-buddies relation rather than romance with Leda. Both our protagonists meet initial "other" men who seem at least more helpful at first, but who prove unworthy of friendship; then they both meet relatively sensitive, more romantic men with whom they don't mind the mildest sort of making out (and both these Good Guys are relatively short, stocky, strong, unflashy and self-deprecating men--clearly the kind lesbians like). Both Carol and Leda prove to be difficult and weak, even if their weaknesses can be understood, given that Carol has a daughter with Harge who will become the object of a custody battle as Carol and Harge divorce, and Leda's life at college depends in large part on maintaining a delicate balancing act between the sorority she secretly disdains, the campus status and housing it provides, and her relation with her immature and sexually competitive mother (a bit of an inversion between the two stories). Nonetheless, the young protagonists are stalwart and faithful, though vexed by the dithering and excessive capriciousness of their lovers, even as they are usually ecstatic when engaging them sexually...only usually, since both couples also have somewhat jarring sexual encounters, wherein the self-doubt and uncertainty of the older women leaves the younger partners a bit hurt, put off. Therese and Carol take a roadtrip together, from NYC to the western states, in a journey that in some ways prefigures not only Lolita, as at least one critic has famously noted, but also On the Road, written at about the same time though published years later. Mitch and Leda also contemplate making a long road trip, but ultimately discard that as impractical (perhaps in part because they're already in the Midwest, and the exoticism of further west is less immediately apparent). In another mirror-image inversion rather than congruence, much is made of Carol's car, she being the wealthier of the two in Salt, and likewise Mitch's in Fire, where she comes from money which Leda can't match. Therese and Mitch write rhapsodic love letters to their women, which are eventually used against both couples; Carol and Therese are pursued by an efficient private detective, who gathers recordings of their conversations, while Mitch and Leda are burst in upon by sorority sisters while in flagrante delicto (so passionately so that they almost replicate a passage from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire classic "Carmilla"). The upshot of the gathering of such evidence against them is the abandonment of the younger woman by the older in both cases; the more brittle Leda attempts to shift all blame for their tryst onto Mitch, while the more morose Carol simply hides from Therese and dithers as to whether Therese should contact her. In the end of Salt, Therese, while toying with the notion of having a fling with a lesbian actress she meets, decides that after all she really wants the resigned Carol, who has been allowed only the most limited access to her daughter, even if Carol did dare to value her daughter over her new lover...this is interpreted by some as a happy ending, although it does suggest a certain lack of freeflowing empathy between the women. Gold Medal editor Richard Carroll warned Meaker that any paperback novel, which would depend on the USPS censors' approval for at least some of its distribution (Gold Medal offered subscriptions to a GM Book Club in those years), would have to not allow the lesbian affair to continue nor end happily, so Leda, in shock after a car accident, reveals directly that she was at least as passionate as Mitch about their affair, and is placed under well-meaning but utterly oppressive psychiatric care, and forced to confront her mother while so hospitalized...and when she reacts with hostility toward her mother, is bound for an asylum. After a tense but gentle confrontation with Leda, in which the hospitalized woman admits how she tried to shift all the onus onto Mitch, Mitch decides she never actually loved Leda. Mitch then cheerfully contemplates an outing with her new roomie, Robin, to whom she is also sexually attracted, and with Robin's boyfriend Tom and Mitch's stocky, goofy male buddy, nicknamed Lucifer. Many choose to see this as an ending which repudiates lesbianism, though I can only see it as a very elegant way to have the potential of a future womanfriend and possibly to eventually eat her, too...Mitch, as noted, was always playfully, never seriously, attracted to "Lucifer," a fitting companion for a practitioner of Mitchcraft. Mitch might also prefer womenfriends in the future who are not willing to flit between utter backstabbing and total emotional collapse--behavior clearly meant to be attributable to Leda's parents' irresponsibility toward her rather than to her lesbianism per se. Meanwhile, the "sensitive" psychiatrist on Leda's case is all too ready to pack his charge off to a sanatorium for Leda's resentment of attempts to remake her into the kind of woman she has pretended to be...while he's tut-tutting about these empathy-free kids these days. A foreshadowing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, perhaps, in some small way, only much more subversively so.
While casting their analogs as rather more heroic than their (rather sympathetically portrayed as somewhat beaten-down) paramours, both novels are very well-written, often witty and incisive, and even a bit tricky: Highsmith loves to delay mention of a precipitating event until a paragraph or so into the description of the aftermath, or at least she does several times in the novel; Meaker is contantly shifting point of view between characters, sometimes within one paragraph, but she handles this rather deftly if at times too quickly...Highsmith in her turn remains relentlessly within the psyche of her avatar, albeit Therese is usually not extraordinarily unkind. (Both novels include rather mixed portraits of surrogate-mother dowagers, but mostly pitying where not positive...the actual mothers of key characters in each novel do not come off so well at all.) Having read these two novels in the last week, I am now even more interested in reading the Big Highsmith biography, and in digging out my copy of Meaker's memoir of their life together, both during their affair and in their brief period together as ex-lovers and friends near the end of Highsmith's life, when her irascibility had risen alarmingly. Meaker, who was a guest of the Rara-Avis discussion list some years ago, was utterly gracious, and despite her college friendship with Richard Matheson and rather unconnected career as staffer at and contributor to the same Gold Medal line publishing him, had no more directly intended to be primarily a crime-fiction writer than Highsmith did...and yet the Packer novels (and not a few of Meaker's YA novels as M. E. Kerr) at least touch heavily on CF themes, and Highsmith is mostly remembered for her criminous novels and somewhat more outre short fiction. (Meaker is quoted as noting that Anthony Boucher, under that name in the New York Times and as H. H. Holmes in the New York Herald-Tribune, was the only major-paper reviewer to consistently review paperback originals, so it made sense to write what was in his purview to review; as I remember the account in Highsmith, one of the sources of friction between Meaker and Highsmith was the latter's irritation at Meaker's comparitive wealth as a Gold Medal novelist, versus the relatively small royalties, if "higher prestige," Highsmith earned as a writer primarily for Knopf. Highsmith apparently had earned a considerable part of her income in the latter 1940s writing scripts for comics, including for Fawcett (their stable was toplined by Captain Marvel, the Billy Batson-crying-"Shazam" character sued out of existence and later revived by DC), and hated the work intensely by all accounts, and I wonder if that, along for the hunger to be taken seriously, didn't stop her from placing at least a few manuscripts at her womanfriend's house.
Patti Abbott is on Nixon-by-the-Shore vacation, and Kerrie Smith is this week's host for Friday's "Forgotten" Books links...next week, I'll be hosting the links here, and the week after that, George Kelley will to the honors, and then back to Patti again.