Monday, October 25, 2021

‘Purity’ By Jonathan Franzen




Marisa Cleveland

“Don’t you like me?” she whispered.
“Actually, I love you.”

When I pick up a Jonathan Franzen novel, I have a certain expectation for a fluidity of writing and meandering narrative. I expect the author to use family and journeys, deep introspective thinking and humor. “Purity” is missing something of that thoughtful, heavy edge, but truthfully, I think that’s one of the reasons I ended up liking — loving! —this book.

The style didn’t fall into a familiar Franzen pattern I’d almost been expecting, and that alone made “Purity” unique in its presentation. Franzen took “Purity” and showed the reader he has other tricks up his literary sleeve. He didn’t fall into a stereotype with a formulaic approach. Oh, no. He took the reader — me — on a long, slow ride through tricky themes seemingly unconnected: money, manipulation, marriage, murder, morals… Just to name a few.

His characters are multi-layered, and I didn’t like many of them, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to. Here is an author who makes me think about people and why they behave a certain way, and if it’s predictable, is it really intentional, and how does the author so effortlessly craft a character that has me screaming at the pages of the novel even as I grit my teeth and smile, thinking that his characters could benefit from a little counseling? But then again, those quirky qualities make for fantastic fiction.

The book is told in seven parts: Purity in Oakland, The Republic of Bad Taste, Too Much Information, Moonglow Dairy, [lelo9n8a0rd], The Killer, and The Rain Comes; and it opens with a conversation between Pip and her mother. Right away readers are aware of the toxic relationship Pip has with her mother. Even though Pip – whose full name is Purity – says she trusts her mother, how can she truly trust her when her mother won’t even tell her who is her father? The back cover copy tells us what Pip does and doesn’t know at the start of the book, and then the journey begins, with Pip taking center stage for the majority of the twists and turns.

I’m never sure how much or how little to write without giving away the novel’s key points, and for that I apologize. I’m filled with so much



to say about this book, and it seems that too much would reveal… too much. Okay, so for broad brush strokes of this book, I must remark on the portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships, particularly between couples in the novel. It saddens me to know that Franzen is capable of capturing such awkward yet seemingly realistic scenes on the page. Somehow, he’s able to craft Pip, Andreas Wolf, Leila Helou, and Tom Aberant with stunning depth, making me wonder at his frame of mind when he delved into each character.

Yes, the novel has secrets and murder, but most intriguing to me is the way the novel ambitiously dramatizes society, the damage parents can do to children, and the way people fail and continue moving forward. Funny enough, I never consider how I look when reading, but this time my husband commented to me on my “intense face” during a particularly painful-to-read sex scene. The scene was probably supposed to be awkward, but the way the relationships deteriorated over time in the novel had me perplexed at the way Franzen fits troubled pairings with such ease on the page. Perhaps the one missing element I wanted to find fulfilled was the emptiness that I felt from each of the characters at the end.

I highly recommend this book for everyone, but especially for anyone with a family, with any type of responsibilities, and with a sense of humor.

I’d love to hear from you! How much of Franzen’s personality and beliefs do you think fit into his fiction? Does his prose capture an intriguing portrayal of contemporary relationships?

Join me next time with “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.

As always, thanks for your time!

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Marisa Cleveland loves to laugh, hates to cry, and does both often. She has a master’s degree from George Mason University and joined The Seymour Agency after she ended an eight-year career teaching students language arts, grades 6-12. Previous to teaching, she worked as an assistant director for a graduate school in Washington, D.C., before settling in Southwest Florida over a decade ago. As a former gymnast, cheerleader, and dancer, she understands the importance of balance, and she encourages everyone to stay flexible. Though she’s a painfully private introvert, she can be reached through her website: or follow her journey on Twitter: @marisacleveland.

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