Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Review #1)

You know me. I love a clever title. I came up with three subtitles for my review of Purity, and can’t choose a favourite, so I’m subjecting you to a mini-reviews to go with each over the next few days:

Review #1: Franziness

Nailed it.

Nailed it.

Publication date: September 1, 2015
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Jonathan Franzen
Check out Purity on Goodreads
Thanks to: The fine people at Macmillian (FSG) for giving me and 199 other lucky Book Expo America attendees an advance reader’s copy.

Like Nell Zink, I won’t bother trying to convince you to read Purity, because you already know if you’re going to read it or not (her review is still offline, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) As my mom used to say, if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like. It’s got Franziness. See the end of this post for my incomplete list of Franziness indicators and add your own.

Franzen’s interviewer at Book Expo America made much of how “plotty” this book is, which is to say, things happen outside the family/personal realm. That’s true. The chapters set in Europe aren’t just a satirical sidebar, like they were in The Corrections. The affairs and sexual misconduct have larger implications for the characters than they did in Freedom. But Purity didn’t surprise me that much. It didn’t shake up my view of what a Franzen novel is.

I read The Corrections recently, and that helped me see what a step up Purity is. If you read his Big Three novels in order, you’d see them get better, smoother, less “I see what you did there.” The threads in Purity come together in a way that reminded me of The Luminaries; you almost don’t notice it till it’s done. There’s also a mystery and a murder, new territory for Franzen, but they don’t overwhelm the story. The characters are still in the forefront.

Speaking of, Purity demonstrates what Franzen’s strength has been all along: he creates characters the reader cares about. Not that we like, empathize with, or relate to (though you might do all those things,) but they keep you turning the pages and slogging through the parts that are sloggy and you miss them after you’re done. I miss Pip! She’s annoying and self-centred and predictable, but she got to me.

Purity is plotty, but it’s also pretty emotional. I don’t think I cried, but I felt real dread during the lead up to the murder, and felt impotent and icky during the seduction of, well, everyone who gets seduced. There were hilarious parts and weird parts and banal parts.

So, if you’re going to read Purity, you’re in for a treat, and if you’re not, please stand by, Reading in Bed will return to regular programming in a couple of days.

An incomplete list of things that have Franziness

  • Birds
  • Wariness of the internet
  • Mommy issues
  • Daddy issues
  • Unlikable narrators
  • Germany
  • Weird/bad sex scenes
  • Icky relationships between stunted man-child(ren) and younger, damaged women
  • Poop


  1. ryandejonghe

    I logged in from Twitter to hit “like” because you said “poop”. I’m commenting because I love this review and your blog. Looking forward to the next couple of days.

  2. Elle

    As someone whose last name is also, in fact, Franzen, your list of Things With Franziness is one I’m going to have to consider most carefully…

  3. emilymullaswilson

    Your Franziness list is the best thing ever and SO SPOT ON. One could possibly anticipate the plot of Franzen’s next book by creating combinations of items from the list. I foresee “Birds that Symbolize Mommy Issues,” “Reader, You’re Going to Be Too Grossed Out to Have Sex For At Least Two Weeks After Reading This,” and “Pooping in Germany.”

  4. ebookclassics

    I’m liking all this Franziness discussion. I haven’t started the book yet, but by the end of the week for sure!

  5. Kristine

    I haven’t read anything by Franzen because, previous to yours, the reviews I’ve read have not made his books sound like reads I would enjoy. At this point, I am also kind of allergic to books about “icky relationships between stunted man-child(ren) and younger, damaged women”. But perhaps it’s worth a try? Do you think Purity would be a good place to begin an adventure in Franziness?

  6. The Cue Card

    Okay. I need to just dive into Purity. So to speak. I’ve only read Franzen’s first book of essays so I should try him again. I havent read the Big Three so I hope it’s okay to start with his latest

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