The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity are all connected by one person, Purity Tyler, who goes by the nickname “Pip”. Like her namesake in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, Pip Tyler is a young person whose life is shaped by past events she does not understand.
We meet Pip when she is 23, saddled with a huge student debt and an emotionally needy mother. She’s smart, funny in an offhand way, unhappy in her job, and fairly unsuccessful in romantic relationships. A seemingly chance encounter with Annagret, a beautiful German visitor, leads to an invitation to join the Wikileaks-like “Sunshine Project” as an intern. Pip is skeptical of the group’s founder, Andreas Wolfe, but is eventually drawn in by a promise that the Sunshine Project can help her find out who her father is (her mother will not divulge this information but Pip hopes she can find him and get him to pay off some of her student debt). The story moves around in time and place, between 1960s-1990s East Berlin, 1990s New York, and present day at the Sunshine Project’s Bolivian compound.
Purity is divided into seven sections, each relating parts of the story from a different character’s perspective: Pip begins, centres, and ends the book, two sections are devoted to the magnetic and strange Andreas Wolfe, and one sections each from the point of view of journalists Tom Aberant, and Leila Helou. Through the narrative another important character emerges: Annabel Laird, an artist who has rejected her large inheritance and creates chaos for those who love her. This is where Jonathan Franzen really excels: creating diverse voices and vivid characters. What first attracted me to Franzen as a writer was his ability to write women characters who were complex and struggled with the social expectations put upon them to be “nice”. Reading Purity, as well as his previous novel Freedom, I found many moments of recognition and sometimes unflattering truth. In this novel even though Pip as a character may represent the ideal of Purity pursued by several other characters, she is still very human and imperfect.
The story of Purity is complex and sometimes suspenseful -part of the suspense is created by the reader trying to guess exactly how the characters fit together. There’s also a murder, the dread of living in Communist Germany, and the excitement and disillusionment of the Sunshine Project’s truth-telling mission. Purity is also about ideas: feminism, the far reaching effects of the internet on our culture, fame, privilege, class, education, love; there is a lot to think about and talk about in this book, but none of it comes at the expense of character and story. I think it would be a great choice for literary minded book clubs.
Purity has also made me want to re-visit Great Expectations “In these literary novels, characters idealistically seeking fame and fortune find instead a rocky, dangerous coming-of-age journey through unforeseen situations while confronting unpredictable people. Both are darkly witty and psychologically rich stories filled with unforgettable, complex characters”. — Jen Baker, Novelist