576 pages, $35 (hardcover)
Release date September 1, 2015
The tangled web of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity crosses borders and timelines, taking us from present-day California to the jungles of Bolivia, then back to the 1980s and life under flailing Communist rule in the German Democratic Republic. While on the surface the novel focuses on a young woman’s search for her father, Purity creates a world of incredible chance and coincidence, with a mad puppet master behind the scenes pulling strings not entirely under his control.
Denied the knowledge of her family history by her hermitic yet loving cabin-dwelling mother, Pip (born Purity) Tyler has long lived in the shadows of half-truths and lies. While carving out a meagre existence in the activist squats of Oakland – and carrying the back-breaking weight of $130,000 in student loans – Pip crosses paths with a close associate of Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-esque celebrity internet watchdog who heads up The Sunlight Project. Invited for an internship at Wolf’s safe-haven jungle complex in Bolivia, she agrees, in part for promised access to his team of experts and their programs to track down her bloodline. Wolf’s interest in her, however, comes from a darker place.
Through the course of Pip’s search, Purity weaves an intriguing tapestry of characters whose tangential connection to one another often proves monumental. As the story curls back and upon itself, the deceits unravel to bring together a billion-dollar trust fund, the unsolved murder of a misogynist Stasi informant, and a missing U.S. nuclear warhead. For the cast of Purity, the pains of unfulfilled love controlled by circumstances both real and self-imposed are always heartbreakingly present. Like a skilled carpenter of intricate wooden trick boxes, Franzen shines in his mastery of connecting these elements into a cohesive, shining whole that holds its secrets tight.
Discussion Points for Your Book Club
Leap in deeper with these five Book Club Discussion points for Jonathan Franzen’s Purity:
1. When we first meet Pip, she treats the world with immense mistrust. How does she deal with her trust issues while she’s faced with deceit at nearly every turn? Does the truth being her any relief or renew her faith in humankind?
2. The end of the GDR came with the forced opening of the regime’s files for a curious, angry populace – in essence, this is what organizations like WikiLeaks and The Sunlight Project aim to do to governments that have wronged their people. How important are these types of leaks? Should all government operations be transparent? What is the value of some forms of government secrecy?
3. Are figures like Julian Assange and Andreas Wolf heroic, or is their influence problematic? How does Franzen blend the backstories of fictional people and their real-world equivalents in the creation of his characters?
4. At its midway point, Purity suddenly shifts from third-person narration to a first-person voice. Why do you think the author did this? Was he successful? Why does this character’s inner voice merit being heard, and how does it affect the story being told?
5. Many of the interactions between characters in Purity are driven by a sense of duty and self-imposed obligation, with both positive and negative results. What are the different ways in which the characters view these obligations, and are any of them successfully fulfilled?