Book Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

The first novel I read by Jonathan Franzen was Freedom, which was really good. Then I was at a book sale, and I wanted to read more of his books, so I found one of his more recent novels, Purity. It is about a young woman named Purity, who goes by “Pip” and lives in Oakland, California with her student debt, a low-paying job, and a bunch of roommates. Not to mention that she has a thing for one of them, but he is already married. She hears about this internship that a guy from Germany named Andreas Wolf founded and decides to pursue it since she wants to leave her stressful situation in hopes for a better one. But along the way, she discovers some dark truths about her past, in particular her relationship with her parents. She finds out that her mother secretly kept all this money from her rather than letting her access it so she could pay off her student debt and afford her rent. She also finds out that Andreas is more complicated than she at first assumed he would be, and the power dynamic between him and her was interesting. And this is where the characters got to be a bit harder to follow than the characters from Freedom, and honestly the book was 500 pages and I didn’t take notes, so I could not remember much of Andreas’s character development. All I remember is that he was conflicted about how he felt about Pip because he was sexually attracted to her, and then he broke up with her, and then this whole confusing thing happened between Pip and him.

One thing I do remember though, is the descriptiveness of the natural surroundings. I think this imagery is really what kept me reading the book even when I couldn’t always understand the characters. I felt like I was walking with Pip the whole time, in her apartment, at the coffee shop she worked at, at the internship… Another thing I noticed (and while I hate comparing writers since each writer has their own experiences and style they bring to the pages) is that Franzen’s writing in this novel was similar to Michael Chabon’s writing. Michael Chabon is the author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Telegraph Avenue. Reading Purity felt sort of like reading Telegraph Avenue, and this is why I am not sure where I stand on what rating to give this book, because while Purity wasn’t bad, it was like Telegraph Avenue, which is super heavy with psychological third person character analysis and rich vocabulary, so it took me a while to finish it and to catch up on the characters and important details about them. But maybe that’s the point of reading at all: reading these kinds of books for pleasure will leave you thinking, What did I just read? Which character did what and with whom? What was the name of their great-grandmother again? You need to look up words, slow down, think about the characters in greater depth, which is something I should have done in order to remember more in-depth analysis of Andreas and Annagret, and Pip’s mother and father.

Again, it wasn’t bad, just not what I expected. I would probably have to read it again, but I am already reading new books, so probably won’t get to read it again for a while.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. 563 pp. 2015.

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