Rebecca's Reviews > Purity

Purity by Jonathan Franzen
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really liked it
bookshelves: door-stoppers, best-of-2015

(Nearly 4.5) Part 1 may be tedious, but from Part 2 onwards, I found this immersive, even action-packed (hey, there’s a murder and a suicide!). Perhaps Franzen could have structured the narrative differently by starting with Andreas and then moving to Purity? By starting and ending with Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, however, he emphasizes his debt to Dickens: shades of both Bleak House and Great Expectations are there in the discovery of true parentage and unexpected riches, and I also spotted an echo of the latter in the inconclusive but cautiously optimistic ending line. My favorite part, though, is “le1o9n8a0rd”: the longest section and the only one in the first person, it’s Tom’s memoir of his ex-wife, Anabel.

As per usual with Franzen, the novel repeats the title phrase and variations thereof as often as possible, with multiple meanings teased out: it’s a main character’s name, but also the virtue (“She was horribly poor but her sheets were clean; she was rich in cleanliness”; “nougat cores of innocence”), a state of totality (“purely”), and so on. It’s perhaps not quite as successful as the term “freedom” in this respect, but overall I think the novel matches its predecessor.

Despite Franzen’s legendary technophobia, he generally gets it right with Andreas Wolf (an East German whistleblower with similarities to Assange and Snowden, though both are also referenced by name here) and his Project Sunlight:

it seemed as if the Internet was governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.

He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to some realer than his physical self.

But, at the same time, “Nature even on the most local of scales made a mockery of information technology.”

His observations regarding journalism are spot-on, too:

Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them. And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.

The truth is somewhere in the tension between the two sides, and that’s where the journalist is supposed to live, in that tension.

Purity is strong on the level of character and theme. Secrecy, isolation and compassion are recurring topics. I also enjoyed seeing how a codependent relationship with a mother is often repeated with a lover (e.g. for Tom, Clelia -> Leila). Names in general are interesting to trace, like Tom Aberant (= Aberrant?) and the close echoes of Andreas, Annagret and Anabel. Rather alarmingly, I could see a lot of myself in Anabel, especially her hermit tendencies and her sensitivity to smell. Franzen gets a lot of stick for his unpleasant characters, but I find them true to life and memorable.

East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is close. With a more dynamic opening section, it might have been a 5-star read.
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Reading Progress

December 14, 2014 – Shelved
December 14, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
October 7, 2015 – Started Reading
October 7, 2015 – Shelved as: door-stoppers
October 25, 2015 – Finished Reading
December 31, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ Nice review, Rebecca. Have a signed copy of this, now of I could just get to it.


Rebecca Signed copy! Lucky you. The reviews have been quite polarized on this one, but I thought it was well worth my time.


Beth Bonini Great review! I liked it a lot; and I especially liked the way he came full-circle with the novel's structure.


Rebecca Thanks, both. This was a library read so I never intended to do it full justice with a review, but these were some random thoughts. I did like thinking about the way the book was structured and why it worked...but I still felt that Part 1 was the weakest.


message 5: by Margaret (new)

Margaret I've not been a Franzen fan, despite his obvious chops, but your generous and open review nudges me to reconsider.


Rebecca Thank you, Margaret! That's very flattering.


Stephen Goldenberg I am much less enthusiastic than you but your review reminded me that I forgot to mention in my own that Franzen's in advisable reference to Dickens merely emphasises what a very minor talent he is in comparison.


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