Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I’m about 300 pages into Franzen’s new novel, Purity, and it’s truly hit its stride. It started out a little slowly for me, and I think he did too much telling, rather than showing, but readerly patience has paid off. At this point, and especially after his brilliant, almost ecstatic description of Pip’s sojourn in Bolivia, it’s more than clear that Franzen can build a compelling case for his world, its multiplicity of emotions, motives, betrayals and jealousies, and especially the internal twists and turns of his characters’ minds.

Even after 300 pages, it’s difficult to summarize the plot. But it’s basically the story of a young woman’s search for the father she never knew, and the search for metaphorical daughters by four slightly less central characters, two men and two women. Franzen’s larger context is our present day, with flashbacks to East Germany right before the Wall came down and its aftermath. The Internet, the Age of Leaks, Assange, Snowden, political and corporate malfeasance, ground the story in a larger reality. But it is the creation of a complex, forever interesting female lead that drives the story.

Pip — her given name is Purity, which she sees as a ridiculous burden — is young, smart, strong and at times vulnerable to the machinations of older men. And they to her. Because Pip also doesn’t seem to realize how deeply attractive she is to people who have lived life for a bit — male or female. Her self-image is generally too low to understand this, and Franzen suggests that her lack of popularity with people her own age affects her self-image almost to the point of neuroses. Older people want to be her, be with her. Young people her own age don’t get her and seem put off by her darkness and quick and frequent sarcasm.

Will write more about the book once I’ve finished it.


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