Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother – her only family – is hazardous. But she doesn’t have a clue who her father is, why her mother has always concealed her own real name, or how she can ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organisation that traffics in all the secrets of the world – including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn’t understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.
Finishing this novel felt like finishing a marathon — a long, exhausting marathon where I needed to concentrate on every sentence or I’d miss some vital information. Don’t get me wrong, this novel is fantastic. The writing is beautiful and the characterisation is marvellous and the development of the story is organic and realistic and believable. BUT this novel is an absolute beast. It’s 600 pages of big paragraphs and no chapters. That’s right. There are NO chapters in this novel, just sections. And each section ranges from 80 pages to 150 pages.
Franzen writes flawed characters so well, and pretty much every main character in this novel has a major flaw. Pip (the main character) never knew her father and later in life, she makes a habit of forming inappropriate attractions towards older men. She seems to willingly make mistakes or serious errors in moral judgement, but she is unapologetic and seems unwilling to learn from her mistakes. At times, she seems like a passive character, overshadowed by the characters Tom and Andreas and unsure about her place within the storyline.
Franzen creates these almost unlikeable, flawed characters so that readers can’t not talk about them. I had to take a couple of breaks when reading this book just so I could chat to a couple of my friends who’d read the book. I even stopped reading Purity and read two other novels before going back to it. I needed a break. This book is literature at its best, and each sentence is vital to the storyline. At one point in the novel, an entire storyline was actually a flashback and I didn’t realise. I obviously must have missed the sentence where that flashback started. Franzen gives you the backstory of pretty much every main character, but there always seems to be some ambiguity to their character, and it seems that the only way the reader can come to understand this is to talk about it. And that is one of the many things that Franzen excels at as a writer.
Each section in the novel focuses on a different character, or a different time period. Some sections go into pages-long flashbacks, or pages-long tangents. But Franzen ties it all together and everything makes sense, and the characters’ motives are fleshed out through three-dimensional characterisation and his beautiful, lyrical prose. Just read these wonderful quotes from the book:
“I am in love. I’m the least beautiful girl at Los Volcanes, but I’m funny and brave and honest and he chose me. He can break my heart later—I don’t care” – page 284
“His long sexual drought had recently ended with his bedding of a sophomore poet who was obviously going to shred his heart but hadn’t got around to it yet” – page 349
“Fog spilled from the heights of San Francisco like the liquid it almost was” – page 517
Franzen’s characters all resonate with the reader. Some readers might even relate to these characters and find themselves drawing similarities to Pip or Tom or Andreas or some of the minor characters.
A lot happens in this book. Andreas murders someone and is haunted by it for the rest of his life, and Pip manages to track down her father. Despite the fact that the book is long and very, very detailed (almost too detailed) and there’s about 5000 tangents, Purity is wonderful and well worth the long slog of reading it. I recommend this book to every reader. Even if you only read the first hundred pages, you’ll still be able to admire Franzen’s extraordinary writing ability.
My Score: 10/10