I’ve been seeing Jonathan Franzen’s books around for years, but to this point hadn’t actually read any of them (admittedly their length intimidated me somewhat). So when the book fairy (AKA Random House Canada) delivered an ARC of his upcoming novel, Purity, to my mailbox, it seemed that fate had intervened.
I went into this book blind. I didn’t yet know anything about it, and not having read any of Franzen’s work before, I didn’t even know what to expect from his writing. So the experience of reading Purity was one of complete discovery. Even with its length, I should have finished this book a lot faster than I did. But I found I couldn’t rush through it as I might have with another long book. I needed to read a bit at a time, letting each section marinate before moving on to the next. There was so much information that I felt like reading too fast would lead me to miss the nuances. (I also went away for a while in August and it was a little too heavy to take with me, so that also delayed me a bit!)
Not only is Purity, true to Franzen form, a long book, but it is also a dense one. He begins with a manageable number of characters and a straight-forward story, but just as you feel you’re getting a feel for it (and really getting interested in the main character, Pip), he switches to an entirely new context and set of characters. The book is comprised of the backstories of each character and he slowly layers on the connections and decisions they all make that will affect the outcome of all of their lives.
Because of this, the book isn’t a straightforward A leads to B leads to C format. You’re constantly being drawn through time and space – present-day Oakland California, Berlin leading up to and following the fall of the wall, the 1980s in New York, back to present-day Denver, etc. – and each story fits new pieces into the puzzle that is Franzen’s master story.
It takes some work to get through this book, I’m not going to lie. But I also found it satisfying. Though, like any book that switches between characters, I liked some more than others, each made sense and was endowed with realistic complexity. I came to care deeply for some of the characters, and even those I didn’t like were interesting and had an important role to play.
I often have trouble with really long books. I either feel like they didn’t need to be as long as they were, or I get ]fatigued by the end. Could Purity have been shorter? Sure. But did it need to be? I don’t think so. The depth that the length of the book afforded Franzen, for me, made it worthwhile. I enjoy really getting to know the characters as well as I did, and the plot shored up the action enough that I didn’t get bored. That said, if you are someone who prefers plot over character development, you may struggle at times.
What I liked most about Purity was that it intertwined so many excellent elements. I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, and I was impressed by Franzen’s ambitious contextual work setting up each place and time period. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m definitely glad I had the opportunity to read it, and I’d highly recommend giving it a try if you’ve got the time and attention span for it!
A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom.
Jonathan Franzen’s huge-canvased new book is about identity, the Internet, sexual politics, and love–among countless other things. It’s deeply troubling, richly moving, and hilarious–featuring an unforgettable cast of inimitable Franzenian characters who grapple mightily and rewardingly with the great issues of our time and culture.
Purity Tyler, known to all as Pip, is an outspoken, forthright young woman struggling to make a life for herself. She sleeps in an rickety commune in Oakland. She’s in love with an unavailable older man and is saddled with staggering college debt. She has a crazy mother and doesn’t know who her father is. A chance encounter leads her to an internship in South America with the world-famous Sunlight Project, which uses the internet to expose government and corporate fraud and malfeasance. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic genius who grew up privileged but disaffected in the German Democratic Republic. Forced to run TSP in Bolivia because of the hostility of European nations whose misdeeds he has exposed, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn’t understand. Like numerous women before her, she becomes obsessed with Andreas, and they have an intense, unsettling relationship. Eventually, he finds her work at an online magazine in Denver with Tom Aberant, who, with his life partner, Leila Helou, uses old-fashioned reporting to achieve some of the same results that TSP seems to pull out of thin air.
That’s the top story. What lies underneath is a wild tale of hidden identities, secret wealth, neurotic fidelity, sociopathy and murder. The truth of Pip’s parentage lies at the center of this maelstrom, but before it is resolved Franzen takes us from the rain-drenched forests of northern California, to paranoid East Berlin before the fall of the Wall, to the paradisiacal mountain valleys of Bolivia, exposing us to the vagaries of radical politics, the problematic seductions of the internet, and the no-holds-barred war between the sexes. – Goodreads
**Thanks to Random House Canada for providing an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!**
Book Title: Purity
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Paperback (ARC)
Published By: Bond Street Books
Released: September 1, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Literary, Character-Driven
Date Read: July 29-Sepbember 1, 2015