Book Review: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

PurityI’ve read several of Jonathan Franzen’s novels, starting back when he wrote The Corrections. I’ve liked some of what he wrote, but a couple of his books seemed flat to me. He’s got this thing about the American dysfunctional family, which is interesting once or twice, but which turns into a cliché pretty quickly. I decided to try his new novel, Purity (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), after reading mostly good reviews, but after 450 pages, I set it down last night and will not finish it.

The novel is about Purity “Pip” Tyler, and her search for her father, who she never knew. It’s also about Andreas Wolf, who runs The Sunshine Project, a sort of Wikileaks. And it’s about Tom Aberant, a journalist, who links these two people together. There’s no point in saying more about the plot, as many reviews do, but there’s sex, and murder, and betrayal, among other things.

Franzen is a very good writer. He has that kind of transparent style that eschews the use of erudite words, and that moves you along quickly. In many ways, he writes like Stephen King: writing for plot, not to show off. But reading this book was like eating a bag of M&Ms. I read the first half in one evening, and it was a real page turner, but at the end of the evening, I felt I had nothing to show for it. I started wondering if I was wasting my time. The characters are all really messed up; there’s nothing that made me want to know more about their lives, or what the obvious resolution to the story was going to be.

In addition, the first section starts in the present, then the next section switches to another character, long in the past. As you progress through each section of the book – each one is longer than just a chapter – you lose your footing, and end up in a different time, with a different character. There’s nothing wrong with a non-chronological narrative, but I felt that Franzen just didn’t do it well. It felt like so much exposition, rather than telling the story he started telling in the beginning of the novel.

There’s no point in saying too much about this novel; it’s essentially a thin plot about a young woman searching for her father that’s been gussied up to look like a Really Important Novel. Alas, it’s not that important.

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