Monday, September 28, 2015

Purity: A Novel

I don’t always let out a squeal of delight when the new-books cart rolls out of the staff room, but when I do, you can be assured that one of my favorite novelists has finally released something new (I seem to be drawn to authors who frustratingly eke out only about one book every four years).  Such was the case with Johnathan Franzen’s (National Book Award Winner for The Corrections) newest novel Purity.  The novel starts out a little slow, with the first-person, present-day account of its nominal character.  Young Purity, a college debt-laden idealist, squatting in a foreclosed house, working for a seedy company, and in love with a married man; hardly comes across sympathetically.  But the real beauty of a Franzen novel is its open invitation to the reader: the characters seem to encourage scorn and judgement in much the same way that Evanovich’s court the approbation of the middle-classed and middle-aged.  It isn’t until about 100 pages in that Franzen’s true genius becomes apparent. It happens in that moment where you find yourself rooting for this poor schmuck whom you’ve spent the better part of the early chapters disdaining.  Purity, who goes by Pip, fortuitously meets up with a German tourist, who inexplicably recommends her for an exclusive internship with the world-famous Sunlight Project. The project (a global whistle-blowing affair), developed and overseen by the enigmatic Andreas Wolf, begins to seem evermore an attractive escape as Pip’s prospects at home, the dead-end job, self-destructive romances, and a needy and secretive mother, turn ever more disappointing.  The added incentive of regular student loan payments (frankly, that alone would be enough to entice me to risk a bit of typhoid), and the promise to help Pip discover the identity of her father, finally lure her to the Sunlight Project’s gorgeous South American headquarters.  Once there, Pip finds it increasingly difficult to buy into the hero-worship of Andreas and at the same time, perversely, finds herself oddly attracted to him.  The novel’s cast then seamlessly expands to include the first-person reflective of Andreas and a handful of additional characters; all of whom contribute to make the novel absorbing and smart; such that twists in the tale actually caught me off-guard because I wasn’t looking for them. I was simply content to spend time with a group of people I had become fond of.  Par for the course, Jonathan Franzen has once again provided us with the anachronistic literary page-turner.

Jennifer Wilson

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