Review of Purity
Purity, by Jackson Pearce, is a book about promises, loopholes, grief, God, and sex. The story follows sixteen year-old Shelby, who lost her mother when she was ten. While on her deathbed, Shelby’s mother made her promise three things:
-Love and listen to your father.
-Love as much as possible.
-Live without restraint.
They seemed simple promises at the time, but things start to get complicated when Shelby’s father volunteers to help plan the southern town’s annual Purity Ball. For those who aren’t aware, Purity Balls are real things and though they can be carried out in many different ways, the general idea of each and every one is the same: for a daughter to promise to remain pure in all ways until marriage. Shelby is horrified at the idea of the ball in general, but the more she thinks about it, the more she sees some problems for her future. “Plenty of girls get married as virgins,” she thinks to herself. “[But] those girls get married at twenty-two, not thirty-five. And you don’t want to get married at twenty-two. You’ve got a Life List to get through. Fine then, be a thirty-five-year-old virgin. Or break Promise Three by getting married young and not living life without restraint […] Either way, a promise gets broken.”
No matter how Shelby thinks of it, she can’t figure out a way to take a purity vow (thereby listening to her father) and still love as much as possible AND live without restraint. Then it dawns on her- if she breaks the vow before she even makes it, there won’t be any problem. And the only way to break a purity vow is by having sex. Helped by her friends Jonas and Ruby, Shelby sets out to track down a guy who will relieve her of her virginity, no strings attached. But, she finds, things are always more complicated than they appear.
The thing I’ve loved through the three Pearce books I’ve read so far is Pearce’s fearlessness in discussing sex. She doesn’t get explicit or even discuss it often in most of her books, but when she does, she manages to do it in a real and sometimes very funny way. She also tackles grief with great skill, writing passages such as the following: “When someone you love dies, it feels like the ground is crumbling away, falling into oblivion. The only thing you can do is grab onto all the things closest to you and hold on tight. I grabbed onto the Promises, to Jonas, to God.”
Oh yes- God. This was one of the best aspects of the book. I loved Shelby’s confusion with her relationship with God. On the one hand, she desperately wants to believe and be comforted by God’s presence in her life, but on the other, she doesn’t understand how to love someone who took another person she cared for away forever. When thinking about God, “him” is not capitalized, a conscious decision of Pearce’s, I’m sure. “Truth is,” Shelby says after a conversation with another Purity Ball participant, “Part of me is jealous of Mona. She believes what her Bible and pastor tell her, and so everything in her world makes sense. There’s just the complete, total confidence that God loves her. I wish I knew how she found that confidence, that certainty- how God is always there when she reaches out.”
Pearce’s unfolding of Shelby’s quest to lose her virginity is a skillful one. As Ruby explains, “There’s getting laid, there’s dirty porno sex, [and] there’s making love… They’re not the same thing. You need to go into this knowing which one you’re shooting for. ‘Cause if you’re trying to make love and you end up getting laid, you’ll be disappointed.” Shelby chooses three guys from whom to pursue deflowering: an ex-boyfriend, a popular drama club member, and a co-worker of Ruby’s who harbors a crush for Shelby. None of these encounters goes exactly as planned, and at many points, Shelby curses her willingness but inability to have sex due to complications such as demanding condom and driving the boy away, or not being forceful enough to convince a different boy to sleep with her.
My one qualm with the book as a whole is possibly an unfounded one. While Shelby thinks deeply and beautifully about grief, the feelings she actually experiences regarding her mother’s death don’t seem involved enough. While I understand that there are many forms of grief and not everyone expresses their feelings in the same way, Shelby’s treatment of her mother’s death seems more appropriate for an acquaintance than the person she loved most in the world. Shelby never cried or got angry enough to show me that she really FELT sad. There was too little reaction in her dwelling on her grief, I suppose. It was intellectual, but not emotional. But again, this may be a legitimate reaction to death, so I’ll back down.
Purity is a great, funny, thoughtful book, and you really can’t go wrong with Jackson Pearce. It just came out, so you should get it while it’s still on the “new releases” shelf.
“[Jonas and I] hang out in the fine arts hallway, just outside the band room. It’s not because either of us has any musical or artistic ability, but because the asshole-to-awesome-person ratio here is way more in favor of the awesome people.”
“Sometimes I daydream about Dad the same way I daydream about Mom- only I think about the dad I would have if he weren’t torn apart by grief. I pretend he’s the kind of dad who goes to the school plays I’d be in if I hadn’t quit theater, who helps me make lame science fair projects, who glares at boys who want to take me to prom and teaches me how to drive on weekends.
I wonder if he sometimes pretends I’m a different kind of daughter.”
“I’d say most of the horn line has played the game, and the majority of the drum line has gotten hot and heavy with a girl or two- usually from the woodwind section. People always figure it’s the colorguard, but seriously, it’s the woodwinds you’ve got to look out for.”
“I just don’t want to be around the other Princess Ball attendees. From what I’ve heard at school and seen at the waltz lesson, most of them are good girls, sweet girls, girls who have ‘it’ figured out, whatever it is. They’ve got straight As and flawless make-up and whole families and probably golden retrievers.”
“[Anna] turns the music up loud and whips the car around corners like a race-car driver. This is the sort of situation that school administrators warn you about, I think.”