Purity and My Summer List

Recently I scored the audio download of Jonathan Franzen’s 2015  576-page novel “Purity” from the library. It took a couple of weeks to listen to it all, which I did mostly while walking … and then walking some more, but I found it well worth it — as the story hooked me early on and engaged me till the very end.

And oh my, it’s quite epic. It takes you down varied paths — from Northern California to the Eastern Bloc and jungles of Bolivia — and through the lives of its characters in a whirlwind. I found it at times humorous, creepy, endearing, and maddening. It has a lot in it and much to say. I was especially impressed by the captivating storytelling of it, which sort of surprised me — as this was my first Jonathan Franzen novel — and here I thought he was supposed to be snooty, grumpy and once infamously mocked Oprah Winfrey’s book club. All of Franzen’s novels about families I (wrongly) presumed were long, dense, preachy, and morose. Yet I found “Purity” to be quite accessible, full of life, easy to fall into, and funny early on.

It’s a story about a young college grad, the whip-smart Purity “Pip” Tyler, who’s laden with student debt, living at a rundown group home and working at a hokey business in Oakland that sells renewable energy. She doesn’t have anyone close to her except her single mother, a recluse who raised her at a remote cabin in Northern California and won’t lend her money or tell her who her father is. Her mother is manipulative and clingy yet Pip still loves her.

In time Pip takes an internship at The Sunlight Project in South America run by this dubious guy Andreas Wolf, an East German who rose to fame during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He’s a competitor to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which his company resembles, leaking secrets of the world. Pip wants to use his company’s resources to find out who her father is, though Andreas is interested in Pip for reasons she doesn’t yet understand and which will eventually upend her ideas of right and wrong — when she pursues a job at an online investigative news organization in Denver. The story is a bit of a mystery, you’ll want to stick around to see what happens to the likable Pip, how it all ties together, and whether she’s able to reunite her family.

It’s also a bit of a modern-day Dickens tale that reminded me slightly of Lauren Groff’s big seller “Fates and Furies,” which came out around the same time. It has a similar epic-storytelling feel to it and is partly about the Battle of the Sexes. Like Groff’s Lotto and Mathilde, Pip’s mother and father are at odds with one another and their sordid history unfolds over time. Franzen seems to satirize their “feminist marriage,” which breaks apart in a firestorm. The mother in “Purity” is particularly worth strangling, though the father, is no white knight either. None of the characters — from Andreas to even Pip turn out to be as pure as they claim to be; they all harbor harmful secrets and have dirtied their hands from it — so to speak.

Like “Fates and Furies” too, “Purity” includes quite a bit about the characters’ sex lives or motives, which aren’t always pretty, so be forewarned. There’s a couple sections where I wondered if Franzen deserved the “bad sex in fiction award” but I think he narrowly dodges it by using it to show just how depraved his characters sometimes are.

What is interesting is the story’s theme that explores power and secrecy issues in the Internet age, and particularly those surrounding journalism vs. WikiLeaks, which Pip must navigate through early in her young career. It’s a timely theme, and one that delves into the background of the Assange-like character, Andreas Wolf. Earlier in life he’s on the run from the Stasi in East Germany for a crime he’s involved in. This part of the book is pretty gripping and reads like a thriller. It’s various side stories like these that make “Purity” worth the price of admission. For all it offers, I gave the novel five stars on Goodreads, despite it including two pretty dislikable marriage partners.

What about you have you read this one, or any of Franzen’s books and if so, what did you think?

As for my Summer Reading List, I’ve listed 15 novels below that I’ll be trying to get to from June 15 to Sept. 15.

Are any of these on your list? Or if not, what is?

I combined some thriller, fast-paced types with slower, deeper reads so hopefully it’ll be an enjoyable season.

Check out what’s on it:

1) If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (2017)
2) Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (2017)
3) Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar (2017)
4) Transit by Rachel Cusk (2017)
5) The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016)
6) To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)
7) The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005) / movie out in August
8) The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
9) The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne (2017)
10) The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer (2017)
11) White Fur by Jardine Libaire (2017)
12) Celine by Peter Heller (2017)
13) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) / b/c of the TV series
14) Before the Wind by Jim Lynch (2016)
15) Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Hopefully I won’t get too distracted by other titles not on the List, but unfortunately I usually do. I’ll incorporate those additions as I go along.

This weekend I’m in California visiting my folks (can you tell?) so I will bid you adieu for now. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Reading!

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30 Responses to Purity and My Summer List

  1. I tried one of his books years ago and struggled with it. I can tell you loved this one, though, so I’d give it a try.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    Great review of Purity! I happen to think that Franzen is the real deal. I have read his three big novels and loved them all. I truly don’t understand some of the vitriol he gets. He is a consummate story teller. Good luck with your summer reading. You have made a varied and interesting list.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Judy. I had a good vibe about the book from your review of it last year. I found it entertaining and interesting. I will read what Franzen puts out next. I am looking forward to summer reading (and weather)! You probably don’t realize how nice you have it here in Southern Cal, enjoy.

  3. Carmen says:

    Have a nice trip, Susan! Happy summer reading! I see you compiled an eclectic list. I’m glad you loved Purity. Humor sometimes helps the story move along swiftly, but if it has more than one subplot, then it has real potential provided the author is good. Seems like all these elements came in to play in this novel.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Carmen, yeah Purity turns out to be a pretty gritty story but the humor helped early on. He’s good at subplots! I’m enjoying my trip out here and will even get to the beach today with my book, wahoo! Have a good week.

  4. Vicki says:

    I’ve never read Franzen but will check his books out. I have a copy of The Glass Castle but haven’t read it yet. I recently started The Stranger in the Woods but couldn’t get interested so I may try it again later. I’ll have to check out some of the other titles that I’m not familiar with.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Vicki, yeah I’ve never read The Glass Castle and I’m a little daunted by the grimness of what I’ve heard about it, but I plan to get to it before the movie comes out. I hope Stranger in the Woods might be good on audio. We’ll see. thx for stopping by!

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    I have been wanting to read Franzen for a while now. The plot and characters of this book sound so in interesting. Hopefully I will get to him soon.

    I love to plan out my reading in lists which I usually end up not following 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha. Brian — yeah it’s hard to follow reading lists. Usually something falls into my hands and I just read it. I’m a mood reader. But it’s nice to *think* about lists. I’ll be curious to see what Franzen puts out next. Enjoy your week.

  6. Love your summer reading list. So many excellent choices including Glass Castle and Handmaid’s Tale. Good luck!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Deb. Those are two well known ones I look forward to. I’ll see how I do on the List! enjoy your summer.

  7. I think Lehane is the only one I know of and have on my list too.

    My wife and I read The Corrections years ago and both of us enjoyed it.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Nice Bryan! I hope the Lehane book is good; I liked his book Shutter Island. I plan to get to The Corrections sometime. Glad to hear you liked it. I enjoyed this one.

  8. I had been on the fence about Purity, as I enjoyed the author’s novel The Corrections…but hated Freedom.

    This newest one does sound more to my liking. Maybe because of the issues the protagonist is exploring, or perhaps the settings appeal to me.

    The length of it put me off a bit, but I realized this week that a long novel that keeps me glued to the pages doesn’t feel…well, long. LOL.

    From your list, I enjoyed The Glass Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale…and have White Fur waiting on Pippa.

    Thanks for sharing…and for visiting my blog.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Oh thanks Laurel. I think you might like Purity; it’s less like Freedom I think. The Glass Castle is coming out as a movie in August — and I hope to get to it before then. I’m also enjoying the Handmaid’s TV series so I’m curious to see how close it is to the book. I’m liking how they use flashbacks in the TV series. Enjoy your week!

  9. I’m a big Franzen fan… never really got all the criticism out there. Loved both The Corrections and Freedom, and have enjoyed some of his essays. I bought Purity the week it was released, but haven’t read it yet . Thanks to your review/reminder, it’s on my summer list.

    The Nix is excellent, although a little long. I think you’ll enjoy it. The Glass Castle was not a favorite, and I’ve been meaning to reread The Handmaid’s Tale. To The Bright Edge of the World is on my kindle, and I borrowed Do Not Say We Have Nothing from the library last week. Enjoy making your way through the list!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn: I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Purity. Some sections are a bit gritty in nature but overall the storytelling is quite good I thought. I’m quite daunted by the length of The Nix but I should just start it and see. We read a lot of the same titles! I find we have similar tastes 🙂

  10. Darlene says:

    I’ve read Freedom by Framzen. Actually, I listened to it mostly. I really enjoyed it. It was smart, interesting and had several intricate storylines. Only thing I would criticize was the explicit sex. Like, over the top. But I loved the ending.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha Darlene, yeah Franzen doesn’t seem to shy away from over-the-top sex scenes. This one also has quite a bit in it. I think I will try both of his earlier books due to his intricate storylines, thx to comments of those who liked them. I’m glad you stopped by.

  11. I loved The Nix. You have a great summer reading list! I just picked up a copy of Celine — I’ve really enjoyed Peter Heller’s other books.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ann, thanks. I’ve heard great things about The Nix and I’m looking forward to others on the list. I too have liked Peter Heller’s two other novels so hopefully Celine will live up to those.

  12. On your list, the Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books. I just posted my YA recommendations for summer. It’s nice to have some adult recommendations from you. Thank you!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Great Sarah, I will stop by your site for the YA recommendations. I’m curious to see how much the TV series is following the book of The Handmaid’s Tale so I’m looking forward to comparing them.

  13. Naomi says:

    The only ones from your list that I’ve read are The Handmaid’s Tale and Do Not Say We Have Nothing – both good!
    Good luck with your list!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Naomi, both of the ones you mention you should excellent. I’m excited about my List, though so far I’m off to a slow start! Some might be pushed to fall. LOL.

  14. Hello Susan! I have never heard of “Purity” and I do not know the books of Jonathan Franzen. But the story and the characters seem pretty interesting. I admire the people who can plan the books that they “have” to read. I am the type of spontaneous reader… a love at first sight type of reader…hahaha…
    Have a good week 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi RT, I know what you mean, usually I’m a mood reader — whatever strikes me at a particular moment, I pick up. But for the last two summers I’ve made a List — sort of for fun — as it reminds me of my long ago student days. I will see how it goes. but am not overly serious about it. After all it’s summer!

  15. Rachel says:

    I read The Corrections when it first came out and really liked it but I hated Freedom. Purity doesn’t sound anything like Freedom so maybe I’d like it. I was kind of mad at him after I slogged through 800+ pages of Freedom! I read it for the book club I was in at the time so I felt like I had to finish it.

    I read the Handmaid’s Tale a long time ago so I’m listening to the audiobook now to refresh my memory before watching the series. Claire Danes narrates it – she does a great job.

    The Glass Castle was great. And I love Thrity Umrigar – I’m excited she has a new book out.

    • Susan Wright says:

      LOL Rachel, you are the second commenter here to hate Franzen’s book Freedom so I plan to go nowhere near it. It sounds like hell. Someday I hope to read The Corrections. Glad to hear you are listening to the audio of HT. We just finished Season 1 of the TV Series, which is pretty captivating. Do you plan to see the Glass Castle movie? It comes out in August. I hope to get to the book first. thx for your insights into all these.

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