Hallie's Reviews > Purity

Purity by Jackson Pearce
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's review
Jun 06, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: ya, audiobook
Read in June, 2012

This was a very odd book, which in the end won me over despite some pretty major reservations. It's not often that I feel the need to flag this fact, but I did read this as a not-at-all-young adult and furthermore, as a mother (of girls). However, I also read it as someone whose father died when she was 7, and who wasn't even in the same continent as her parents at the time.

There's not much point in copying and pasting the description above of the book, although I do want to comment on this description of the vow that is to come at the end of the Princess Ball: 'to live pure lives -- in other words, no "bad behavior," no breaking the rules, and definitely no sex'. It's actually much less vague than that - no alcohol before legal drinking age (and not excessive amounts after), no drugs and no pre-marital sex. And that last line 'who has a right to her purity'? Horrible.

Anyway, the reason I said the book is odd is the sense I got when reading of the layers of book (to a certain extent justified by the acknowledgments section, in which Pearce said she'd originally planned for a very light and fluffy book, and thanked fellow writers who'd helped her to write something much deeper and more introspective). Layer 1 was, to my mind, pretty silly. That was the part of the book relating to Shelby's contortions over trying to keep promise 1 (love and listen to your dad) and promise 3 (live without restraint), when her father is pushing her into attending the Princess Ball with him, where she'll have to vow not to have sex until she's married. The loophole she and her friends come up with is that if she's *already* had sex when she takes the vow, it's meaningless. So she's got to find a guy willing to have sex (with condom!, without high likelihood of STDs!) and who'll be happy to just leave it at that. Wham, bam, thank you sir. It's more a rom-com film set-up than a real novel, to my mind.

But, that's definitely not all the book has, and layer 2 - including Shelby's striving to live up to the promises she made to her mother, her questioning of religion, of God, and the gradual growth of her understanding - was moving. She comes to see what has been glaringly obvious to the reader throughout - that her mother would *never* be happy with her finding some random guy to hook up with, in order to create a loophole of this kind.

I suppose that's where I don't think the two layers of the book fit that well together, because Shelby seems smart enough to have figured out sooner that this type of game playing to abide by the letter of the law with respect to the promises, is actually a deeply dishonest way of appearing to be loyal to promises made. Especially as she has two very close friends who are supportive of her attempts to keep the promises, and also smart and kind. But I managed to accept that this is just the way it's happened, and then was able to appreciate her working it out. Along the way, Shelby has fun with her father for the first time in ages, makes some pretty rotten decisions, and realises what, again, the reader will have known all along are her feelings towards Jonas.

Finally, the whole idea of the Princess Ball appalled me, though I suspect that things of the sort aren't that unusual in the States. I found the wearing white, having the big wedding-style cake and making vows - between father and daughter - quite disturbing. Attaching the pledges to 'purity' onto what is supposedly a social event makes it even worse, as this became coercive rather than supportive. It was nice that Shelby found a surprising lack of correlation between the apparent 'goodness' of the girls participating and the actual sincerity of their feelings towards the event. Not that it actually should be surprising, but Shelby is, I think, intentionally shown as rather young in some of her emotional understanding.

No book is for everyone, and this one may not be for a lot more people than is the case with many other books. Some readers are doubtless going to be bored or offended by the religious questioning; some by Shelby's decision to engage in a casual sexual encounter, and willingness to use a guy to get what she wants; some will probably find the mixture of funny and silly with much greater emotional depth doesn't work. I ended up caring a lot for all of the main characters, and finding many of the emotional responses very true. And the life list itself was wonderful, but the scene in which Shelby goes by herself to 'cross off' one item from it had me in tears.

Note on the audiobook: Pearce herself reads it, and reads it very well. Nicely pitched, and whatever about authorial intention it was good to know that there weren't any distortions of character or tone by a reader. The acknowledgments at the end, especially when Pearce thanked her mother and grandmother for inspiring a scene with Shelby's mother when she's near death, had me in tears again.
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message 1: by Anna (new)

Anna It sounds like an interesting read! Yes, those purity balls are quite the phenomenon here, though not so much on the coasts, more in the rest of the country. I find them very disturbing too, such a medieval take on father-daughter relationships. I think that kind of loophole seeking, following the letter of the law kind of thinking is pretty common among teenagers, who usually haven't really developed enough to understand the abstract concept of the spirit of the law. Teenagers tend to be rather concrete thinkers in my experience, and I can easily imagine even an intelligent one trying earnestly to finesse a way to keep two sets of competing promises. I'm not sure if I feel tempted by this book though, honestly I think I'll have to wait to see if Obama wins re-election first. If he can pull it off I think I would find it easier to get over the creepiness of the purity ball and enjoy the rest of the book, right now I'm too much in despair over the cultural choices this nation keeps making...

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