Book Review: Jonathan Franzen's 'Purity'

Dec 17, 2015

Jonathan Franzen was once called the “Great American Novelist” by Time magazine. Our book reviewer Scott Southard gives us his take on the author’s newest novel, "Purity."


For a lot of people, Jonathan Franzen represents the worst stereotype of a novelist. In interviews, he often comes across as arrogant and condescending, even to his own readers. His abrasive personality has earned him a lot of haters, both within and outside of the literary community. He was even rude to Oprah! And so, the difficulty I always face reading a Jonathan Franzen novel is trying to separate the author from his story.

"Purity," Franzen’s latest novel, follows the life of Purity Tyler, or Pip as she’s known by her friends. Pip has always felt like the world is against her. She struggles with the crippling burden of her student loans and the mystery of her unknown father. Her experiences have made her bitter, jaded and frankly, unpleasant. But when she meets Andreas Wolf, everything changes. Andreas, a character inspired by Julian Assange, is hiding out in South America. His organization closely resembles the real WikiLeaks. It uses hackers and whistleblowers to expose the secrets of powerful officials. Andreas’s past is full of secrets including a hidden murder during the fall of East Germany. What Andreas wants with Pip is a mystery. But he promises to help Pip find her father, and that’s enough to convince Pip to join his organization.

With a name like Pip, it is hard for a reader not to draw parallels between Franzen’s work and "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. The problem is that unlike the classic Pip, Franzen’s character doesn't really change or grow. She doesn't seek out and take the life she wants like Dicken’s Pip. She more or less falls into it. And honestly, Andreas’s adventures during the fall of communism in Germany are a lot more interesting than anything that happens to Pip in the course of the novel. So Dicken’s fans take warning: this is not the same story. This isn’t that Pip.

A common complaint about Franzen is that he seems to dislike all his characters. After reading "Purity," I can’t help but agree. But I wonder if Franzen sees it that way. He’s said he considers himself a comic novelist. If that is the case, he sure has an odd sense of humor. But maybe it explains how he treats the characters in his books. He can be cold and cruel toward his creations, especially when they’re women. For example, few of the women in "Purity" make decisions based on logic and reason. Instead, they’re all portrayed as overly emotional and irrational. This leaves the male characters confused and angry, feeling victim to the whims of the opposite sex. I can’t imagine readers laughing along with Franzen this time. I certainly didn’t. Sexist choices like this seem to be more about Franzen’s own worldview than about the book or the characters. But like I said, it is hard to separate him from his books now.

In 2010, TIME Magazine crowned Jonathan Franzen the great American novelist. To be fair, he does check off a lot of the boxes that literary critics fawn over. But as time goes on, I can’t help but feel like that honor seems a little premature. I won’t deny that Franzen is a sophisticated writer and a smart man. And like his other novels, "Purity" is beautifully written. But there is still something missing. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Franzen has all the right pieces in place for a compelling narrative. But Purity lacks the spark and wonder that make a story come alive. It might look the perfect novel from the outside, but in the end, it just felt lifeless.

Scott Southard is the author of the novels "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.