Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

2017: 24
4.5  of 5 stars
Published September 2015

The description of Purity revolves around a young woman, Purity aka Pip and Andreas Wolf, a German media “leak” mogul but really, the book has less to do with Pip than it does Andreas and a lot more to do with a few other characters, too. Pip is the star at the beginning of the tale. Saddled with a lot of student debt, Pip is working in a crap job and living in a crap flophouse. Pip is still tangled in her mother’s apron strings though she’s trying to work her way out of it. She meets Annagret, a German woman who persuades her into contacting Andreas Wolf, the force behind a Wikileaks-like internet exposee company based in Bolivia. She’s decided to go but we don’t get to that just yet. We flip over to Andreas Wolf.

We hear about his life in Communist East Germany, his love for Annagret, his love/hate relationship with his mother (this is turning into a common theme here) and father. He’s got a secret that he carries and now his reputation will be ruined if it ever comes out. Only one person knows about it, a journalist called Tom. The focus then flips over to Tom and Leila.

Tom is running an online news service out of Denver and has a girlfriend, Leila, who is married to a disabled novelist. We hear about her as she’s investigating a story. Pip makes an appearance again finally and is taken on as an apprentice, getting involved with Tom and Leila’s lives. Now, we finally go to Pip’s experiences in Bolivia where Pip ends up going to work with the Sunshine Project for awhile, ultimately getting involved with the magnetic Wolf who has promised to help her find out who her father is because her mother has always refused to tell her. Over to Tom, now and Tom’s relationship with Anabelle, his ex-wife who disappeared abruptly many years ago becomes the next section of the book. Tom also has issues with his mother as Anabelle has with her father.

The focus then flips back over to Andreas. Back to Andreas again, to backtrack a bit for his early life with Annagret and his perspective on some things that we’ve already seen with Pip in Bolivia before all the various streams get tied together and secrets get outed at the end.

So, the book isn’t really about Purity as such though her story starts and ends it. It’s a lot more about everyone else, where Purity is more of a catalyst than anything else. There’s also the definition of the word Purity which seems to be thematic through the book though metaphors in books tend to sail over my unless it’s made blatantly obvious. I don’t like thinking about themes and influences when I read, preferring to enjoy the story for what it is. And I did enjoy this story. The oft-used phrase “richly descriptive” or similar really does apply here. Each main character’s development and history is crafted and woven like a tapestry where the whole of it comes together to make the big picture. Everyone is connected in some way even if it isn’t evident at first. And when the connection is finally made, it’s a true “Ah!” moment and you keep reading and waiting for the next one.

All of the characters are flawed and nobody is a hero/heroine. People’s basic characteristics don’t really change and everyone has secrets and regrets, just like real life. Lies can and will adversely affect your life and the lives of others in your path and maybe you can find a way to redemption or a way to shake off the negative impact that your parents’ actions had and do something better with your life. Purity is a nice, long, chunky book that you can immerse yourself in.

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