Summary and book reviews of Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Purity by Jonathan Franzen
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2016, 608 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom

Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother - her only family - is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life.

Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world--including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.

Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters - Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers - and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes. Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time.

Purity in Oakland
Monday

"Oh pussycat, I'm so glad to hear your voice," the girl's mother said on the telephone. "My body is betraying me again. Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal."

"Isn't that everybody's life?" the girl, Pip, said. She'd taken to calling her mother midway through her lunch break at Renewable Solutions. It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn't suited for her job, that she had a job that nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job; and then, after twenty minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work.

"My left eyelid is drooping," her mother explained. "It's like there's a weight on it that's pulling it down, like a tiny fisherman's sinker or something."

"Right now?"

"Off and on. I'm wondering if it might be Bell's palsy."

"Whatever Bell's palsy is, I'm sure you ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. From the Sunlight Project to Purity Tyler herself, how is purity defined throughout the novel? Are any of these definitions realistic, or are they steeped in youthful idealism? What is at the root of the characters' impurities?
  2. The epigraph quotes a scene in Goethe's Faust in which Mephistopheles (the Devil) says, "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good." How does this notion of simultaneously benevolent and sinister intentions play out in Purity? Who are the novel's most powerful characters? How is their power derived: Through secrets? Money? Integrity?
  3. How would you have answered Annagret's questionnaire, featured in the first chapter? What do Purity's responses say about ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Franzen fluidly dissects the meaning of identity and the intersection between our online avatars and our flesh-and-blood realities. Likening the Internet to a new brand of totalitarianism, he shows how media narratives can warp reality to such an extent that the constructed persona begins to feel more real than the original person ever was. The stories we tell ourselves — and the ones we chose to present to society — bind us in unforgiving ways, Franzen implies. By the time Andreas Wolf wants to break out of his “save the world hero” mold, it is too late. “I’m not doing this job because I still believe in it,” he says, “It’s all about me now. It’s my identity.” In this and many other ways, it is the novel’s particular brand of cynicism that is perhaps the most direct reflection of contemporary American society.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review (828 words).

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Media Reviews

O Magazine

As with all of Franzen's fiction, there is much to admire in Purity, not least what reviewer David Gates once termed 'microfelicities,' the expertly calibrated turns of phrase and pleasingly digressive cultural references and riffs around every corner.

The New York Times Book Review

Purity is a novel of plenitude and panorama . . . [Its sprawl] can suggest a sort of openness and can have a strange, insistent way of pulling us in, holding our attention . . . Often brilliantly funny . . . This is a novel of secrets, manipulations and lies.

The Boston Globe

As in all Franzen's novels, and now so very powerfully in Purity, it is the history of his players that matters. Franzen's exhaustive exploration of their motives, charted oftentimes over decades so as to deliver us to this moment when the plot turns on the past in the seemingly smallest of ways, is what makes him such a fine writer, and his books important. He is a fastidious portrait artist and an epic muralist at once.

The Washington Post

In Purity Franzen writes with a perfectly balanced fluency . . . From its tossed-off observations . . . to its thoughtful reflections on the moral compromises of journalism, Purity offers a constantly provocative series of insights.

Harper's

Purity's plot is a beautiful arabesque . . Subplots are doubled and trebled. But the remarkable thing is that the novel does not seem convoluted when you're reading it; to an astonishing degree, the melodramatic swoops of the plot are well orchestrated and thrilling.

The Chicago Tribune

[Purity is] so funny, so sage and above all so incandescently intelligent, there's never a moment you wish you were reading something else. Franzen still seems on every page of this book like America's most significant working novelist

The New Republic

A good writer will make an effort to purge his prose of clichés. But it takes genius to reanimate them in all their original power and meaning.

The New York Times

Mr. Franzen's most fleet-footed, least self-conscious and most intimate novel yet . . . Mr. Franzen has added a new octave to his voice.

Publishers Weekly

Though the novel lacks resonance, its pieces fit together with stunning craftsmanship.

Booklist

Starred Review. Franzen has created a spectacularly engrossing and provocative twenty-first-century improvisation on Charles Dickens' masterpiece, Great Expectations.

Library Journal

Starred Review. National Book Award winner Franzen, who often decries the state of our increasingly materialistic, high-tech society via his essays and novels, this time proffers a more hopeful, sympathetic worldview.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.

Esquire

[Franzen] knows exactly what we've come to expect from him, yet with Purity, imperfect and impolite but, yes, ambitious and vital, he proves us all wrong.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Julian Assange

Julian AssangeIn Purity, Andreas Wolf, who starts The Sunlight Project to expose corruption worldwide, is often compared to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

A computer scientist by training, Assange was named to Forbes magazine's "Most Powerful People" list in 2010 for being the "genius provocateur behind Wikileaks, hard at work providing startling glimpse of near future, where confidential and classified documents are routinely made available to the general public."

"Governments and corporations with dirty laundry should be afraid, very afraid," the article said. And indeed, the U.S. government was embarrassed by a string of leaks of classified documents, military reports, and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables that Wikileaks ...

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