By Jonathan Franzen

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 576 pages)

Who is this author?

In the opinion of many critics and readers, Jonathan Franzen is the best of our contemporary American writers, having earned impressive literary honors as well as being featured on the cover of Time magazine (apparently being on a Time cover does not carry the career-diminishing curse attributed to being similarly featured on Sports Illustrated.) His five novels are The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, The Corrections, Freedom and his latest,  Purity, and his nonfiction works  are Farther Away, How to Be Alone, and The Discomfort Zone – and all have won praise. And not just praise: prizes, including a National Book Award and a James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Corrections, a searing, bitterly comic family saga. Franzen also contributes to The New Yorker and other major publications.

What is this book about?

For Pip Tyler, life is a mystery with many clues missing. A recent college graduate in Oakland, Calif., she is drowning in student debt and has a difficult relationship with her emotionally ill mother who refused to tell Pip – whose real name is Purity – who or where her missing father is. When Pip leaves her going-nowhere job for an internship in Bolivia with a cultish group called The Sunlight Project, which will remind readers of the real-life WikiLeaks organization, she becomes entangled with its charismatic but dangerous leader, Andreas Wolf, an East German whose goal is to shine some Internet sunlight on all the world’s secrets – possibly including Pip’s. There’s much more to the story, involving world politics, journalism, bad marriages, worse parents, idealism and the eternal search for purity in life, laid out over many decades of character back stories and present-day events. How Franzen manages to handle all these disparate themes is a testament to his writerly prowess and admirable control.

Why you’ll like it:

Franzen is a masterful writer, a truth seeker with uncompromising standards and a wicked sense of dark humor. He first gained wide, and unwanted, fame when he rather primly turned down the chance to have The Corrections be an Oprah Book Club selection (a publicity bonanza authors would normally kill for),  saying he feared it would turn off  male readers, but he later did accept her selection of Freedom for her powerful club. Never one to play to the crowd – I heard him speak once and have never seen an author less comfortable with a live audience – Franzen is nevertheless a brilliant writer with lofty aims, often realized. Purity is the big book this fall: ignore it at your peril.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Secrets are power, and power corrupts even the most idealistic in Franzen’s exhaustive bildungsroman. Two years out of college, self-conscious, acerbic Purity “Pip” Tyler is saddled with crushing student loans and an overbearing, emotionally disturbed mother who refuses to reveal the identity of Pip’s father. Living in Oakland, Calif., Pip meets and confides in beautiful German activist Annagret, who calls on her former boyfriend, Andreas Wolf, to give Pip an internship working with Wolf’s cultish Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like operation based in Bolivia. Once there, Pip is both flattered by and suspicious of the attention she receives from the magnetic Wolf; when she returns to America to do his bidding in secret, she becomes increasingly attached to people he may want to hurt. Pip strives to retain her integrity, but the world in which she is coming of age is, in Franzen’s view, sick, its people born only to suffer and harm. Mining the connection between Pip and Wolf, Franzen renders half a dozen characters over the course of six decades, via extensive origin stories that plumb their psychological corners. Franzen succeeds more than he fails, but the failures are damning. At first, the mercurial, angry Pip and the arrogant, abrasive Wolf seem drawn to actively challenge the reader’s sympathies. Then there are the novel’s fathers, who are almost all abusive or absent, and its mothers, who are disturbed, cruel, or dumb. Gradually, it becomes clear that Franzen’s greatest strength is his extensive, intricate narrative web—which includes a murder in Berlin, stolen nukes in Amarillo, and a billion-dollar trust. Though the novel lacks resonance, its pieces fit together with stunning craftsmanship.”

Amazon.com Review named it an Amazon Best Book of September 2015: “Purity takes many forms in Franzen’s new novel—to begin with, it is the name of the book’s title character. “Pip,” as she is more commonly known, is not fond of her given name, and when we first meet her she is living in a crowded Oakland house under the burden of colossal college debt. Pip soon becomes involved in “The Sunlight Project,” a WikiLeaks-style group that seeks to uncover secrets and expose them on the web. Run by Andreas Wolf, a charismatic man of renown, who grew up in socialist East Germany, the Sunlight Project becomes the jumping-off point of discovery for Pip, as well as a starting line for Franzen to jump back in time and explore the backgrounds of his primary and secondary characters. There is a point in the book where readers may wonder where this is all headed; but the thoughtfulness and polish of Franzen’s prose should reassure that the journey isn’t in vain. It eventually becomes clear that nearly every character is chasing purity in some form—whether pursuing Pip herself or some platonic ideal—and Franzen ties up the ends in a way that is clean and satisfying but will have you thinking about Purity long after you have finished the book.”

“Franzen may well now be the best American novelist. He has certainly become our most public one, not because he commands Oprah’s interest and is a sovereign presence on the best-seller list-though neither should be discounted-but because, like the great novelists of the past, he convinces us that his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live . . . A good writer will make an effort to purge his prose of clichés. But it takes genius to reanimate them in all their original power and meaning,” says critic Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic.

“As in all Franzen’s novels, and now so very powerfully in Purity, it is the history of his players that matters. Franzen’s exhaustive exploration of their motives, charted oftentimes over decades so as to deliver us to this moment when the plot turns on the past in the seemingly smallest of ways, is what makes him such a fine writer, and his books important. He is a fastidious portrait artist and an epic muralist at once,” says The Boston Globe.

Library Journal says: “Does anyone have truly pure intentions, or are most people motivated by their own needs and desires? This is one of the questions posed by Franzen in his provocative new novel, a book rich with characters searching for roots and meaning in a world of secrets and lies. Pip (Purity) Tyler is burdened with college debt, a minimum-wage job, and a needy yet withholding mother who lives as a recluse under an assumed name. The identity of Pip’s father is a taboo subject. Enter the shadowy, Julian Assange-like CEO of the Sunlight Project, Andreas Wolf, purveyor of all the Internet’s hidden truths. With less than pure objectives, Wolf offers Pip a researcher position at his South American headquarters. An improbable sexual cat-and-mouse game between them causes a temporary drag in the narrative, but once Pip returns stateside and is embedded in the offices of an online journal, Franzen reveals moments of absolute genius. The cathartic power of tennis; the debilitating effects of jealousy; the fickle, fleeting nature of fame; and the slow death of youthful idealism are all beautifully captured. VERDICT National Book Award winner Franzen, who often decries the state of our increasingly materialistic, high-tech society via his essays and novels, this time proffers a more hopeful, sympathetic worldview. “

A starred review from Kirkus says: “A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art. Purity “Pip” Tyler, the hero of Franzen’s fifth novel is a bright college grad with limited prospects . . . A German visitor, Annagret, encourages Purity to intern in Bolivia for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style hacker group headed by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. Skeptical but cornered, Purity signs on. The names alone—Purity, Wolf—make the essential conflict clear, but that just frames a story in which every character is engaged in complex moral wrestling. Chief among them is Andreas, who killed Annagret’s sexually abusive stepfather and has his own issues with physical and emotional manipulation. But he’s not the only one : Andreas’ friend Tom Aberant is a powerful journalist saddled with self-loathing and a controlling ex-wife who detests her father’s wealth; Tom’s lover (and employee), Leila Helou, is a muckraker skilled enough to report on missing warheads but fumbling at her own failed marriage to Charles Blenheim, a novelist in decline. . . . here, Franzen is burrowing deep into each person’s questionable sense of his or her own goodness and suggests that the moral rot can metastasize to the levels of corporations and government. And yet the novel’s prose never bogs down into lectures, and its various back stories are as forceful as the main tale of Purity’s fate. Franzen is much-mocked for his primacy in the literary landscape (something he himself mocks when Charles grouses about “a plague of literary Jonathans”). But here, he’s admirably determined to think big and write well about our darkest emotional corners. An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.”

When is it available?

This much-discussed novel is available now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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