Review: Purity by Jackson Pearce

Purity by Jackson Pearce. Little, Brown, and Company, 2012. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: Ok, this cover makes me laugh. The cover designer was clever enough to utilize the lock symbol to represent Shelby’s virginity, and then to make that lock open and just gradually hanging on to that chain. I appreciate that the cover represents the ‘precarity’ of Shelby’s situation, because she’s on the verge of making a decision. The cover is simple and bold, and I like that.

Does it break the slate? Yes. I knew that this would be a book about a chastity ball, so I started reading with certain expectations for plot and character. Pearce defied all of those expectations as she developed Shelby into a smart, self-assured, yet vulnerable character. She is making a decision that many, many girls have made before, but Pearce crafted a unique plot situation to make Shelby’s story more compelling than other virginity-oriented narratives.

Who would we give it to? This is a great book for girls who are struggling with parental relationships and feel that they can’t communicate with their parents. This book focuses on a relationship between a father and daughter, but it could spark a discussion between mothers and daughters too.

Review: Shelby is a teenager who lives her life guided by three promises. These promises bind her every decision and shape the way she lives her life. When her mother died of cancer, her last words to Shelby included the three promises. Shelby was so devoted to her mother that she vowed to keep these promises, no matter what.

Keeping the promises hasn’t really been a problem…until now. After her mother’s death, Shelby’s dad has thrown himself into volunteering for various charity efforts in the community. Meanwhile, Shelby has been working on her promise to “live without restraint.” She and her best friends Jonas and Ruby maintain a life list with tasks that Shelby must accomplish – including travelling the world and stealing a car. Both Shelby and her father are caught up in their own ways of distracting themselves from the absence of Shelby’s mother, and they rarely meet in the middle. Neither has any idea what is going on in the other’s life.  So when Shelby finds out that her dad has volunteered to organize a community Princess Ball, she is surprised. And then her dad asks her to help. Normally, Shelby would say no…but she has to keep another one of the promises: “Love and listen to your father.”

Shelby feels trapped. Her dad wants her to attend the Princess Ball and make a vow of purity, and she believes that she can’t say no because she promised her mom that she would forever listen to her father. So, in order to negate the vow of purity, she decides that she has to lose her virginity before the Princess Ball so that she is not bound to a sexless life until marriage.

Ok, hold up. I know that sounds crazy. But Shelby’s not just some lust-crazed teenager. She’s actually an incredibly self-aware young woman who is just struggling to please the people she loves most. That’s especially difficult because she’s trying to please her dead mother, and a deceased parent isn’t around to clarify their expectations or give encouraging talks. Although Shelby’s decision to have sex may seem arbitrary, it is her decision, and that’s the most important aspect of the plot. She has an understanding of her rights and options. She insists on using birth control (although the scene in which she obtains that birth control is both mortifying and hilarious). Shelby is not a dumb kid who has sex in the heat of the moment. She’s a young woman on a mission to have an experience that she feels is important. She even grapples with faith throughout the story in a way that reminded me a lot of my own adolescent questions about religion.

I loved Shelby’s evolving relationship with her father throughout the book. It was refreshing to learn that her dad was not an uptight guy wanting to “protect his precious little girl.” Yes, he liked the idea of the Princess Ball, but he wanted to participate more for the opportunity to grow his relationship with his daughter rather than to preserve her purity. Both Shelby and her dad are kind of dense about doing the whole conversation thing. Reading their awkward exchanges made me want to scream. But Shelby and her dad both had to work through their own issues before they can find common ground.

Another favorite element of this book is the head-banging frustration of knowing that Shelby is totally in love with this guy who is also totally in love with her, but neither Shelby or the guy fully realize it. I wanted to grab Shelby by the shoulders, look her in the eye, and say, “Just kiss him, you idiot!” The tension of that relationship wasn’t exactly swoonworthy, but it was sweet and endearing enough to keep me engaged. I must admit that I like a little romance – even in Slatebreaking books.

With Purity, I expected a book about a very Christian teenager feeling conflicted about taking a chastity vow. I got a lot more than I expected. Thanks, Jackson Pearce, for surprising me in a good way.

Reviewed from library copy.

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