Sunday, November 6, 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

A girl discovers her heritage

Purity Tyler, 23 years old, $130,000 in debt, toiling away at a horrible telemarketing job, enamored of her unattainable married roommate, receives a mysterious message from Annagret, an older, extremely beautiful German woman. She tells Pip to apply for a Bolivian internship with the famous charismatic Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange type of Internet warrior. Andreas, who grew up a child of the nomenklatura in oppressed East Germany, shares a dark secret with Annagret. Long ago, he disclosed this secret to Tom, caretaker of his missing wife’s $1 billion trust fund. All three main characters try to break free from the childhood molding of their crazy obsessive mothers. The numerous plot threads come together (somewhat) in the last quarter of the book,

The novel begins with two long compelling character studies. Pip and Andreas, each in immediate trouble, and each suspecting there is much much more to life than Santa Cruz or East Berlin. Neither knows the true story of their conception, or the name of their real father. Both have larger than life mentally ill mothers. I was completely sucked in. I cared about them and wanted to know more. Tom and Andreas also have parallel lives. Each with a nutty German mother, and each having painfully learnt that the expectations of a wife stunt a man’s ambitions. Little by little, the reader understands the threads that connect the blocks of character development.

The novel is like a set of Chinese boxes, leading to a most delightful box: the angsty, highly humorous sex scenes between lower middle class responsible Tom and his completely insane billionaire young wife. The characters’ names: Anabel. Annagret. Purity. What do they mean? All the characters grapple with the conception of purity, though most, including Pip herself, a little, are not so pure. Not at all. They struggle with their need to make sure others see their desires as “pure” when their desires are rolled up with greed and lust and murderous anger. Franzen’s sweet spot is character development and the novel certainly delivers on that. For the most part I found the women believable, although in places the behavior of certain woman got silly.

This was a quick read for an almost 600 page book, although I felt at the end Franzen was winking at the plot silliness which brought everything together.

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