Purity by Jonathan Franzen: A review

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Purity is the legal name of the central character of this book and moral purity as a concept seems to be the philosophical idea which the author wants to explore through his characters and their stories. He does it at great length in this interesting but rather ponderous novel.

(Full disclosure: I originally rated the book at a four-star read, but after sleeping on it overnight, I dialed it back to three stars. I think a bit of editing, trimming down some of those long passages that seem to go on forever repetitiously and to no great effect at advancing the plot, would have definitely made it a four-star.)

Purity Tyler, by the time we meet her as a young college graduate, has adopted her school nickname, Pip, as the name that she goes by. This Pip does not have any great expectations. She's in a dead-end job, burdened by crushing college debt and a lack of direction.

She is also burdened by a lack of knowledge about her family history. She was raised in a tiny cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a mother who borders on the insane and who will not tell Pip who her father is or even her (the mother's) real name. At some point, she had taken on a false identity for reasons that Pip cannot even fathom and she is completely paranoid about being discovered. But why? We have to read a few hundred pages before we get to the bottom of that particular mystery.

In addition to Pip and her mother, there are at least three other main characters in the story.

There is Andreas Wolf, originally from East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. He is now in Bolivia running something called the Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-type operation. In fact, Andreas is very envious of and competitive with Julius Assange and with Edward Snowden over the attention that their leaks and whistleblowing garner. He is a self-obsessed and manipulative character, who is apparently irresistible to women. Once he has had an affair with a woman, she stays loyal to him forever!

We also meet Tom Aberant, who runs an online investigative journalism magazine from Denver. He is the opposite of Wolf, a serious journalist who is quiet and unassuming but fiercely dedicated to his craft. 

Tom has an associate who is also his lover, Leila Helou. Leila is married to a famous author who is a paraplegic and she divides her time between the house where her husband lives and the home of her lover.

What do all of these characters have in common? Where do their stories intersect? There is a long-ago murder involved, but Pip is the key, and we have to do a considerable amount of reading to make all the connections.

This is a novel about secrets and lies and the damage they can do, particularly to relationships between parents and offspring. It's about manipulative, self-absorbed people who are so frightened of revealing themselves that they can never have truly intimate relationships with other human beings. So, even though there are moments of humor, Purity reveals an essentially melancholy view of life.

Franzen uses the narrative method here that is familiar from his previous books, The Corrections and Freedom; namely, he gives over large swaths of the story to each character, so that we hear Pip's, Tom's, Andreas', Leila's, and even Pip's mother's tale from each of their own perspectives. This includes, as it did in Freedom, the private autobiography of one of the characters. As a method of storytelling, it reminds me most vividly of the leisurely pace of the 19th century novel. That's not necessarily a bad thing - there's a reason why Anthony Trollope is still read and enjoyed - but it does tend to result in fat books that could have an alternative life as a doorstop.

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  1. "Books that could have an alternative life as doorstop..." Wow, Dorothy, that's harsh! ;-) But I know exactly what you mean. I have developed a certain intolerance towards big tomes for that reason, more so lately.

    1. Well, I didn't really mean it to be that harsh. It's not a bad book, but I do think it could have benefited from a more stringent editor.

  2. I like your perceptive review Dorothy. I am a big fan of Franzen's books and long books in general, although with all the books I want to read before I die, sometimes I get frustrated when a book takes so many days to read. But Franzen has his own, sometimes prickly ideas about life and the world, and I enjoy that he doesn't sound like everyone else.

    1. He does have a unique view of the world and a unique way of expressing it. I think my favorites of his books that I have read are The Corrections and his book of essays, Farther Away. I particularly like his essays about birds and wild places, things for which he has a real passion, which I share.

      Perhaps I gave a wrong impression with my review. I'm not opposed to long books in general. I am opposed to books that feature long passages that don't seem to go anywhere or contribute to the story, and self-referent, self-indulgent, smirky prose, in which Franzen occasionally seems to revel. It's the same complaint I had about his friend, David Foster Wallace and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest which was...infinite.

  3. I've never read anything by Franzen, though I keep meaning to. I'm not sure I'm ready for anything this long just yet, as I just finished reading Chernow's "Hamilton," which took me weeks to finish--talk about a doorstop:)

    1. Oh, I am so envious! I've had that book on my shelf for years - since it first came out if you can believe that. I've never been able to work myself up to read it and I've vowed that this will be the year. Well, we'll see...


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