The Color Purple felt intimidating before I started it- it won Alice Walker the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and it was adapted into a much loved and lauded film that launched Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg’s careers to the next level. (I have seen stills of the film but have yet to watch it). Additionally, I’ve been lumping it in mentally with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which was beautiful writing but tough subject matter (the ‘colour in the title’ wasn’t helping me either).
From this perceived starting point, the Color Purple turned out to be both more and less than I expected. On the more side: Walker’s novel seemed less bleak than The Bluest Eye, and ended more optimistically; it had a number of different fully realized black female main characters, who were all allowed to learn and grow and thrive and make mistakes. None of them were perfect but the book absolved them of the need to be. There were also moments that were really funny (mostly Sofia and Harpo’s early days), which I didn’t remember in The Bluest Eye.
The novel is written as a series of letters, mostly from the main character, Celie, to God or her sister. A tragic childhood (rape and abuse) leads to an unhappy marriage (more abuse) but eventually to meeting a her husband’s charismatic and crackling mistress, the nightclub singer Shug Avery. In time Shug and Celie begin their own relationship, and Shug both opens Celie’s eyes to what the world could hold for her, as well as nurtures Celie’s growth into that bigger world. Minor characters have their own fully fleshed story lines, including Celie’s stepson Harpo and his two wives (Sofia, his first wife and the mother of his children, and later his second wife Squeak). There is a second story line that eventually connects back with Celie’s, that of her sister Nettie who was taken in by missionaries and spends considerable time with them in Africa.
On the ‘less’ side- it is hard to compete with Toni Morrison’s lyrical prose, and Walker has written her novel largely in Celie’s voice (as a series of letters); all of which is to say: I missed the poetry of Morrison (and I know its not a fair comparison- its just that my expectations had conflated the two, so I was bound for disappointment). The letter format is fine- great in fact for really letting a character’s voice come through- but not always my favorite way to read a novel.
Overall, well worth reading, and not as intimidating, language-wise or ‘leave you in knots’ subject-wise (there is some heavy subject matter but because it comes so early on, and the ending leaves you with characters with so much agency, it doesn’t feel as heavy as it could).