The Color Purple by Alice Walker is rated 4 stars because it is a moving and beautiful story which feels authentic.
First, a Review
It’s hard to review a book which is considered a modern classic and is loved by so many. It feels like most anything that could be said about the book has already been said and either you will read it or you will not. But I will attempt to say a few things about this book that will hopefully sway those that have not red it to consider reading it.
I had avoided reading this book for quite awhile because I knew it dealt with tough subjects and I am not always in a place to deal with such things in the books I’m reading. But a friend who I trust on these sorts of things said while the book did deal with tough subjects, it wasn’t done in such a way as to be emotionally challenging to deal with. Thus, I gave it a chance (I suggested we read it for my book club), and I’m very glad I did. While horrible things happen to Celie (see trigger warning for more details), because this book is written as letters, these things are mentioned as mere facts. While they impact Celie, she takes it for granted that it’s just the way things are and doesn’t say much else about them. If you are worried about this book being emotionally draining, don’t. It’s an uplifting story.
The matter of fact way these horrible thing are discussed makes them more powerful. The sense that this is just the way things are brings to light how bad it really is without having to say that. These things are not uncommon and that makes them all the more atrocious. Even though they are common, the books shows how different women respond to them, which is also incredibly powerful. While these women see these things as the way things are, they also do not all choose to respond to them equally and this variance is a kind of power over these forces they do not fully control. This also makes it an uplifting story.
Celie’s letters are written with spelling and grammatical errors and more like spoken speech than formal letter writing. This makes it a bit harder to get into the story as one has to navigate the unique language of the book. But it is incredibly powerful in this book as it shows so much of who Celie is. In general, I am not a fan of novels written through letters, with a few exceptions, and this is one of them. Again, it works really well for this book as it shows the core of who Celie is in a straightforward way which feels more authentic to her voice than a novelization would have felt. Overall, this is a book I highly recommend and if you, like me, have reservations about this book due to its subject matter and/ or its style, I myself felt these reservations were unwarranted.
Now, a Reflection
Note, there are spoilers in this reflection. The entire reflection is a spoiler, so there are no markers indicating parts one can read and avoid spoilers.
In my book club, we discussed Celie’s and Shug’s relationship and several of the members expressed how frustrating it was when Shug left Celie. Some also expressed confusion at why Celie was so accepting of how their relationship played out. Besides the fact that Celie was the kind of person who mostly accepted things they way they were, this relationship felt incredibly authentic to me and it is something I wished I had read when I was in high school. At that time in my life, I myself was in a similar relationship and I would have benefited greatly from seeing an example of the kind of relationship I was in. My best friend and I moved beyond friendship to lovers, yet, it was complicated by the fact that neither of us was entirely sure of our sexuality. We both at various points dating men and neither of us saw it as a violation of our relationship. We weren’t polyamorous; we didn’t know what that was. We wouldn’t have tolerated one of us dating another woman. But there was this expectation that we would date men. We didn’t discuss this in detail and all I can say is that she was supportive of me dating men. For me, I didn’t really consider the possibility of us having an exclusive relationship. I didn’t really cross my mind. In retrospect, I think this is because society expects women to date men, whether we are interested in doing so or not. Women aren’t freely given a lot of agency in their sexual relationships with men and this greatly impacts women’s ability to explore their own sexuality. In my reflection on the book, Carmilla, I discussed how my relationship with this woman was invisible to most people around us, even when we were vocal about it. I believe this played a role in both of us dating men. At no point, did we sit down and say, well, obviously we have to keep dating men; there was no discussion of it at all. One of us went on a date with a man and that was that. We discussed it as friends would, not as lovers open to additional partners or lovers being cheated on. It did not occur to us that there was any other way and I felt that this is how Celie and Shug saw their relationship. In addition, Shug, needed the external validation of men’s attraction to her for her self-esteem. I can relate to this. I spent years dating men because of what I already discussed in how I didn’t think to not date them, but also because I was raised to thrive on sexual attention from males. It took me many years to recognize that while I enjoyed that attention, I did not enjoy dating or having sex with almost all men. I had to get to a place where I was confident enough in who I was as a person to be able to say that I expect relationships with women to be exclusive and that I do not need the sexual attention of men to feel complete. That’s not an easy place to get to and it’s not a place I think Shug was ready to get to anytime soon. While unfortunately I think there are some readers who dismiss their relationship as real because of how it plays out, I saw it as more real because it mirrored my experience. I think if I had read this book back then, I would have thought more carefully about my own sexuality and what I wanted with my best friend turned lover. This type of story matters and I am incredibly grateful to have read it.
Trigger warnings (contains spoilers): sexual abuse, namely incest, detailed not graphically depicted; children born of incest; physical abuse, detailed not graphically depicted; racism and racial slurs