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Purity by Jonathan Franzen

PurityJonathan Franzen, celebrated author of “Big Important Novels,” has returned with Purity, his first new book of the decade.  This monster of a book explores the concept of privacy in the digital age, the lasting effects of bad parents, the search for identity, and much more.  It’s big, brainy, sometimes slow, and sometimes abrasive.  It’s also one of the best books I read last year.

Twenty-something college grad Purity “Pip” Tyler is working a dead-end job, burdened with $130,000 of student loan debt, and squatting with anarchists in a dilapidated house in Oakland.  Most troubling of all for her, she can’t escape constant contact from her agoraphobic, hypochondriac mother.  After a chance meeting, she takes an internship with The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-style online venture dedicated to exposing government and corporate secrets.  Andreas Wolf, a charismatic übermensch who grew up under the omnipresent eye of the East German Stasi, heads The Sunlight Project and harbors some secrets of his own.  In Wolf, Pip sees an opportunity to learn about the father her mother has kept a secret from her and thus learn more about her own identity.  If you’ve read The Corrections or Freedom, you know the drill: the plot bounces across continents, narrators, and decades as the characters become embroiled in the great crises of our time.

If you can handle far-reaching literary tangents (nuclear proliferation, fine art, and digital privacy are just some of the subjects which receive lengthy subplots), flawed characters, and a 550-plus page count, give Purity a try.  When I finished this book, I felt like I had been taken around the world and through time; and offered a glimpse at how historians, philosophers, and other big thinkers the future will view the world we live in today.


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