Originally published October 2015

You know how you can tell if it took you a long time to read a book?

Inside my copy of “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen is:

  • The receipt
  • The map of my daughter’s high school from Curriculum Night
  • A college football program
  • A college soccer program
  • About six heat sheets for high school swim meets
  • Two coupon punchcards for SportsClips
  • A doctor’s office receipt
  • A mammogram reminder

I’ve been carrying this doorstop of a book, all 563 pages, around for what feels like months. And now that I can set it down, I’m a little sad about it. I feel like Pip, Tom, Leila, Anabel, Penelope and Andreas are family.

In thinking about how I would talk about this book with friends, I began to think of it this way—there are books where the circumstances are so real and the characters are over the top, and there are those where the characters are so real you could reach out and touch them, but the circumstances are crazy. Both scenarios equally entertaining, but very different reads.

“Purity” is the latter. The beauty of Franzen for me in that each his novels, the characters are so beautifully drawn that even those that come across as wildly over the top (I’m looking at you, Anabel) end up being some of the most “real” people you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading about.

The face of “Purity” is one young Purity “Pip” Tyler—just out of college and saddled with a shit ton of college debt, she’s scraping by as a telemarketer in the Bay area in California. Her relationship with her mother, Penelope, is mutually attracting and repelling—it’s as if Pip is genetically predisposed to loving and protecting her mother, who she also holds in high disdain for their odd, almost poverty-level lifestyle and for the fact her mom won’t give up the goods on the identity of her father.

Tired of the unknown, Pip hooks up with the literary equivalent of Julian Assange—Andreas Wolf, the head of The Sunlight Project. Andreas is one strange, charismatic, evil kind of cat, struggling with inner demons and his own mommy issues. It’s her hope Andreas can help her locate her father.

Funny you should mention that Pip, because Andreas …

“Purity” has more than a handful of themes woven through its pages, so there’s no lack of fodder for a book club meeting. Unrequited love, inappropriate love, mother/child relationships, father/child relationships, loving someone with a mental illness and the guilt that comes with abandonment, and even the occasional power struggle between people that can crush souls.

Of the three Franzen novels I’ve read, this is far and away my favorite. It’s not a quick weekend read, but you won’t regret picking it up.

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