Book review: Purity

Jonathan FranzenI admit to feeling disappointed by Purity by Jonathan Franzen. The root of this disaffection is partly my expectations, having loved The Corrections and Freedom, and partly the subject matter. Unlike his previous two novels, which focussed on an extended family, the central narrative of Purity is a young woman’s search for her father, a search which brings her into contact with some seriously dodgy people.

A large chunk of the novel is about Andreas Wolfe whose Sunlight Project brings light to the world by leaking secrets. His backstory as a young man in East Germany as the Wall crumbles is historically interesting but I found his character unpleasant. On his first foray into West Berlin, Wolfe meets a young American journalist, Tom Aberant, who becomes another constant throughout the book. Great chunks of the book are dedicated to Wolfe and Aberant’s relationships with, respectively Annagret and Annabel, who confusingly merged together in my mind.

So what kept me reading? Pip, the Purity of the title, a young woman burdened by student debt and a curiosity about the identity of her father, is lured to Bolivia to work for the Sunlight Project, in the belief that she will find out the name of her father. Pip’s story inevitably becomes entwined with Wolfe and Aberant but at times it seemed as if Franzen was writing two separate novels, I wanted to skip the Wolfe parts and get back to Pip.

Purity is not just Pip’s real name, it is the big theme. Purity in terms of information freedom, in terms of intentions and objectives, and old-fashioned secrets and lies; and there are a lot of the latter two. All the characters are hiding something, or avoiding someone, or longing for someone, or seeking something unattainable; and all must consider whether, in seeking the truth, they actually want to hear it when they find it.

This is not a bad book, Franzen couldn’t write one, and parts of it are written beautifully. He has a wonderful economy of phrase sometimes which encapsulates a big observation in a few well-chosen words. Unfortunately for me, other parts of it were stodgy and over-long and I skipped over some paragraphs.

Is it an epic book? It is certainly big [576 pages, but not the 736 pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life] but that is not in itself a problem, I like reading big books – big in terms of length, and subject matter. My real problem was that I didn’t engage with the characters, I didn’t care about them and found them at times over-the-top, verging on hysterical. I don’t need to like them, but I do need to care about them.

A full-fat novel with extra sugar and extra caffeine.

If you like ‘Purity’, try these other ‘big’ American novels:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘Some Luck’ by Jane Smiley

‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen [UK: 4th Estate] Buy now

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