It’s the big book of the Autumn by the author Time Magazine put on its cover as the ‘Great American Novelist’. Yep, Purity by Jonathan Franzen was published yesterday, and as you’d expect it’s big, bold and already spawning endless debate – about matters both to do with the book and not. (Does the way Franzen writes about women mean he’s not a feminist, for example; how valid are his views on conservation? And so on). Some of the reviews have been ecstatically good (The New York Times, for one), others more lukewarm, and some – most notably The Guardian’s – just plain odd. Anyway, it’s the critics’ job to wrestle with what they call the ‘Franzen-ness’ of Purity, whereas ours is simply to read the book as it is and go from there. Well, we’ve read it and we loved it. That’s why we wanted to write this post: simply to recommend Purity reader to reader.
Purity is about a young woman called Pip (Purity) Tyler who, saddled with a large student debt, a dead-end job and a disastrous love life, goes in search of her father – whose identity she doesn’t know. (Her mother is quite something). The book is full of twists and turns, has a dense plot (a lot goes on) and contains several unapologetic coincidences. It’s Dickensian like that. It’s brutal in places, schmaltzy at times, fast-paced, very sexy, and often extremely funny (Franzen rightly calls himself a comic novelist). Set between USA, Bolivia and East Germany, straddling decades of history, and written from several narrative viewpoints, which all ring absolutely true, the book is far reaching and satisfyingly, successfully ambitious. We found the section set in Bolivia one of the most memorable, disconcerting and exciting pieces of fiction we’ve ever read. But in fact we raced through the whole book in a few days – it’s impossible to put down – and soaked up every page. We also, for the record, love the way Franzen writes about women (and yes, some of his women are nightmares and some are heroic, but all are complex and written with unnerving insight), though it’s a mystery to us quite how he knows so many of our secrets. Do read Purity. It’s full of such complicated characters, it tells such a hair-raising story and yet it’s so straightforwardly, brilliantly written, which is not to underestimate the writing at all.
Franzen is coming to London later this month and will be speaking at The Royal Geographical Society at 7pm on Wednesday 30th September. Unfortunately the event, organised by Intelligence Squared, is sold out, but you can add your name to the waiting list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Do include a contact telephone number in your email as well as the number of tickets you’d like. Good luck!