My Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

“It wasn’t easy to become a person who’s OK being alone on a Saturday night, but I did the work, I got there, and now some part of me is wishing I hadn’t gone out tonight. Some part of me wants you not to be here.”


Jonathan Franzen’s much-anticipated Purity tackles everything from the Internet and the digital age to the changing face of journalism to intimacy to feminism to gender roles to restraint to the meaning of eternity to money to sociopathy to environmental sustainability to morality. The plot centres on an Edward Snowden-like leaker (side note: could Snowden have chosen a better phrase for his first Tweet than Can you hear me now? Wowowow), but in typical Franzen style is really a generational family drama. As usual Franzen’s writing is captivating and impossible to untangle from, and you won’t guess any plot twist until Franzen is ready for you to unravel it.

For a book that’s largely about the digital age, Purity feels sorely behind the times in its descriptions and references to the web and tech—almost like your grandma who’s trying too hard to relate to Millennials. What Purity does get right is capturing the entitlement so common to many Millennials, coupled with the belief that we’re born to do something great, all the while being lazy slobs (sorry!).

Also Purity almost feels like a cautionary tale of how we fall in love with strangers and too often then spend the rest of the relationship wondering how to disentangle from the person we’re learning is at best not perfect, and at worst toxic and potentially insane.

I was hugely disappointed in the ending, and really in the whole final quarter of the book. Franzen set the scene for what could have been a beautiful, heart-rendering, thought-provoking, authentic, sincere finale—but instead we got something that felt more like the rapid last-minute tying-up of loose strings.

In my eyes, Purity can’t hold a flame to the raw, authentic power and the potent, almost alive characters of Franzen’s earlier work Freedom (and given the falling star of an author he likes to profile, this may be a huge fear of Franzen’s), but it’s still definitely worth a read. 3.5 stars for being impossible to put down. Perhaps would have been 4 stars if Freedom hadn’t set my expectations at a 70-metre bar.

Great quote

“Anabel came clad in a black-trimmed crimson cashmere coat and strong opinions.”

On every entry-level job ever

“She could never quite figure out what she was selling, even when she was finding people to buy it, and no sooner had she finally begun to figure it out than she was asked to sell something else.”

“Nowadays there is really one habit of highly effective people: Don’t fall behind with email.”

“That job never sounded worthy of your talents.”

On morality

“It’s difficult to trust a person with no secrets.”

“She kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness.”

“Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption.”

On happiness

“I’m starting to think paradise isn’t eternal contentment. It’s more like there’s something eternal about feeling contented.”

On gender roles

“We girls are supposed to at least have these amazing sexual powers, but in my recent experience this is just a lie told by men to make them feel better about having ALL the power.”

“Funny how women are always to blame for what men do to them.”

“Strict limits to intimacy are the straight man’s burden.”

On journalism

“Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them. And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.”

On rejection

 “Was there anything crueler, from the person who’d rejected you, than compassionate forbearance?”

 “Adhering to the principle that it was actually kinder not to return a call from a person you’d slept with if you didn’t intend to sleep with him again.”

On love

“When she went to Union Station and saw him ambling up the platform… a little chime sounded in her head, a single pure note, and she knew she was in love with him.”

“I was happy that she spoke of us as something potentially ongoing; distressed that we might be something she didn’t need.”

“The stickiness… was a male embarrassment and seemed to have little to do with the tenderness I felt toward her.”

“My head was a radio playing Anabel on every station.”

 “There was a new look in her eyes, the unconcealable and unfakable look of a woman seriously in love.”

“The heaven of soul-merging was a hell.”

“It was consonant with my experience of crushes—the feeling of inferiority, the hope of being found worthy nonetheless.”

 “She loved having a body now that Jason loved her having it.”

“Our joint plan was to be poor and obscure and pure and take the world by surprise at a later date.”

On relationships

“My life had become a nightmare of exactly the female reproach I’d dedicated it to avoiding.”

“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you.”

“The charade of withholding and discipline.”

On death

“Every murder was a suicide gone awry…”

General wisdom

“Stupidity mistook itself for intelligence, whereas intelligence knew its own stupidity.”

“The chances of one civilization sticking around to get a message from another were vanishingly low, because it was too damned easy to split the atom.”

“The problem with a life freely chosen every day… was that it could end any moment.”

“It’s not impossible to relinquish desire.”