Purity (novel)

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Jonathan Franzen, Purity, cover.jpg
First edition cover
Author Jonathan Franzen
Cover artist Rodrigo Corral (design)
Bon Duke (photograph)
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
September 1, 2015
Media type Print (hardback)
Pages 563
ISBN 978-0-374-23921-3
Preceded by Freedom

Purity is a novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. His fifth novel, it was published on September 1, 2015, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel tells the intersecting stories of several different people of widely diverging ages and backgrounds.

Purity in Oakland[edit]

Purity Tyler, who goes by the name "Pip" is in her early 20s and has $130,000 in student loan debt. She was raised by her reclusive mother Penelope in Felton, California, south of the Bay area. Her mother tells her nothing about her own background, not even her original name or age. Facing eviction from her semi squat and dissatisfied with her so-called job and love life Pip is looking for something new. Despite her mother's objections, Pip is recruited by Annagret, a German anti-nuclear activist, to work for Andreas Wolf, the charismatic leader of The Sunshine Project, a fictional competitor to WikiLeaks, headquartered in Bolivia. Among other things, Wolf promises to help search for Pip's father.

The Republic of Bad Taste[edit]

Andreas Wolf, born in the 1950s in East Germany, the son (or so he thought) of an important SED Central Committee member and his wife Katya, got himself kicked out of university for publishing embarrassing poetry and lived for years in a church basement, helping troubled youths. After seven years, when he was 27-year-old, a 15-year-old girl, Annagret, came to him with the problem of her stepfather, a Stasi informant who is molesting her. He falls in love with Annagret and together, they kill the stepfather, burying his body in the backyard of Andreas' parents' dacha. They separate for a time, to not draw attention to themselves. When nothing happens, Wolf becomes convinced that the Stasi is keeping the regular police away to spare his father trouble.

Two years later, the Berlin Wall comes down and Wolf is afraid his crime will be exposed, partly because his parents are thinking of selling their dacha to Westerners who want to raze and redevelop the estate, doubtlessly uncovering the body. His father arranges for one last favor with the party, and Wolf gets access to his Stasi records and those of Annagret's stepfather, early on the first day outsiders are allowed into the archives. While trying to leave on the sly with carbon copies he is not supposed to have, he runs into television cameras and on the spot becomes a celebrity dissident, shining "sunlight" on the state's secrets. He then meets an American journalist, Tom Aberant.

Too Much Information[edit]

Leila Helou is an investigative journalist for the Denver Independent, an online newspaper founded by Tom Aberant off a $20 million gift in his ex-father-in-law's will. Leila splits her personal life between her paraplegic husband, Charles Blenheim, a literary has-been, and Tom Aberant, her boss and lover. Leila is pursuing a story made possible by a disturbing photograph of a nuclear warhead being used as a party prop, made available by Pip Tyler, the Denver Independent's new intern from California. Pip is taken in by Tom and Leila, but over time Leila grows jealous of the relationship between Tom and Pip, and has it out with him. Tom reveals that Pip's mother is his long-disappeared ex-wife Anabel and that he is apparently Pip's father, but that this is "impossible." He is greatly disturbed by the fact that Pip somehow ended up with him, apparently without her knowing he is her father. Tom also reveals that Pip's mother has a billion-dollar trust fund in her name which she refuses to acknowledge.

Moonglow Dairy[edit]

Pip is in Bolivia, learning the ropes at The Sunshine Project. Wolf and Pip don't quite have an affair—Pip backs out of sexual encounters twice at the last minute—and after six months, Wolf sends her to Denver, partly to spy on Tom Aberant by installing spyware on his computer.

Pip enjoys working at the Denver Independent with Tom and Leila and, realizing they don't seem to have any agenda regarding Wolf, regrets having installed spyware on Tom's computer. She asks Wolf to undo this. He says he may try, but then angrily breaks off contact with her. Tom and his IT specialist have identified the spyware. Pip confesses, although she can't bring herself to naming Wolf explicitly. Tom worries whether Pip might have read a certain document.


A young Tom Aberant is a college student at the University of Pennsylvania and editor-in-chief of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Following an unflattering story about an incident concerning Anabel Laird, an art student at Tyler School of Art, Tom becomes Anabel's friend, lover and husband. She is from an extremely rich family, but she won't touch any family money, is a vegan, and excels at taking offense at almost anything Tom, his mother, or her father does. Tom is the son of Chuck Aberant, an American progressive, and Clelia, from Jena, East Germany.

Tom is moving up in his journalism career, Anabel has retreated into an art film project that can never be finished. Tom gets an assignment to cover East Germany as communism is ending, where he meets Andreas Wolf, who tells Tom a slightly fictionalized version of the story of the murder of a girl's stepfather. Together, they rebury the body. Wolf's exuberance disgusts Tom, who returns to the U.S. and decides to divorce Anabel. But they continue to have an affair, and Tom pulls his ultimate weapon to end things with Anabel - he tells her he is going to accept a huge check from her father. She disappears, leaving no trace except for a taunting note. He does not take money from Anabel's father at the time, but does eventually accept a gift from his will.

The Killer[edit]

Andreas Wolf gets back together with Annagret. But she and Wolf's mother Katya become best of friends, and Wolf finds himself having great internal rages, which he dubs the "killer."

After ten years of lovelessness together, they break up. He becomes an Internet celebrity and a wanted man in most countries of the world for his leaking of secrets, eventually settling his operations in a hidden paradise within Bolivia. In his growing paranoia, he endlessly searches for information about himself, and when a journalist, Leila Helou, castigates him for "dirty secrets," he connects her with Tom Aberant, who, he is convinced, has betrayed him. Seeking revenge, he discovers Tom's wife vanished long ago, and starts a deep trawl with face-recognition software on American databases. Eventually, he discovers Penelope Tyler (Anabel's new name), and learning of Pip's existence and of Tom being her likely father, asks Annagret to recruit Pip.

When Tom finally learns he has been spied on, he comes to Bolivia to have it out with Wolf, who is surprised to learn that Tom has kept his secret. Wolf leads Tom to a high, isolated cliff, taunts Tom with his private knowledge about Pip and his reading of Tom's secret memoir. When he can't goad Tom into killing him, even by telling him he has mailed the secret memoir to Pip, Wolf leaps off the cliff.

The Rain Comes[edit]

Pip is trying to come to terms with the knowledge of who she is. She reveals herself to her mother's trust fund manager, whose hands are mostly tied without Anabel's signature at some point. Pip convinces her mother into lending the smallest amounts and arranges for Tom to meet Anabel again. The reunion goes poorly. The novel ends with Pip and Jason, her boyfriend, sitting in a car outside of Anabel's cabin, listening to a furious argument between Tom and Anabel. Pip has hope that she might be able to do better than her parents.


The novel had been in development since before December 18, 2012, when Franzen revealed that he had "a four-page, single-spaced proposal" for a fifth novel.[1] A longer excerpt of the novel was published in The New Yorker in June 2015.[2]

On November 17, 2014, The New York Times Artsbeat Blog reported that the novel, titled Purity, would be released in September.[3] Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, described Purity as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents.[3]


Purity, according to Literary Hub's review aggregator Bookmarks, received a "mixed" response from book critics.[4] The novel garnered high praise[5][6][7][8][9][10] from some and negative[11][12][13][14][15] reviews from others. Michiko Kakutani's review in The New York Times was favorable,[16] calling the book "dynamic" and dubbing it Franzen's "most intimate novel yet." Harper's described the novel's plot as a "beautiful arabesque," and suggests that Franzen seems to have responded to past accusations of anti-feminist chauvinism with blunt clichés.[17]

A review of the book in The Economist magazine stated Purity did not compare favorably with his previous works. It stated that the book "feels like an imitation of Mr. Franzen's earlier novels, without the emotional resonance and subtlety."[18]

In a June 2018 profile of Franzen in New York Magazine, Purity was revealed to have been a relative commercial disappointment compared to Franzen's two previous novels. According to the article, Purity has only sold 255,476 copies to date since its release in 2015, compared to 1.15 million copies of Freedom sold since its publication in 2010, and 1.6 million copies of The Corrections sold since its publication in 2001.[19]

Television series[edit]

In 2016, Daily Variety reported that the novel was in the process of being adapted into a 20-hour limited series for Showtime by Todd Field who would share writing duties with Franzen and the playwright Sir David Hare. It would star Daniel Craig as Andreas Wolf and be Executive Produced by Field, Franzen, Craig, Hare & Scott Rudin.[20]

However, in a February 2018 interview with The Times London, Hare said that, given the budget for Field’s adaptation ($170 million), he doubted it would ever be made, but added “It was one of the richest and most interesting six weeks of my life, sitting in a room with Todd Field, Jonathan Franzen and Daniel Craig bashing out the story. They’re extremely interesting people.”[21]

In June 2018, The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Franzen that reported Franzen receiving a phone call from series writer/director Todd Field to give the news that pre-production on the series had been halted. Star Daniel Craig also called to explain that he had "been summoned" to star in another James Bond movie.[22] It remains unclear whether the series is dead or if a possibility exists for production to resume. In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter quoted Showtime CEO David Nevins as saying that after Craig's commitment to the 25th James Bond movie, the Purity adaptation was still on track. "He's doing Bond first and I can't say anything about what I know or don't know about Bond, [but] It's possible it may not shoot until 2019."[23]


  1. ^ "Q&A: Jonathan Franzen". portlandmonthlymag.com. Retrieved 3 June 2015. 
  2. ^ Franzen, Jonathan (8 June 2015). "The Republic of Bad Taste". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Alter, Alexandra. "New Jonathan Franzen Novel, 'Purity,' Coming in September". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  4. ^ "Bookmarks reviews of Purity by Jonathan Franzen". LitHub. Retrieved January 23, 2017. 
  5. ^ Miller, Laura (2015-08-26). "Jonathan Franzen Is Having More Fun Than His Critics". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  6. ^ "Mr. Difficult Rejects His Title: Ira Wells on "Purity" - Los Angeles Review of Books". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  7. ^ Ulin, David L. "Why read controversial author Jonathan Franzen's new 'Purity'? The fierce writing". latimes.com. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  8. ^ White, Duncan (2015-08-14). "Purity by Jonathan Franzen, review: 'furiously funny'". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  9. ^ Jones, Radhika. "Review: Jonathan Franzen's Purity Examines Wealth and Identity". Time. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  10. ^ PURITY by Jonathan Franzen | Kirkus Reviews. 
  11. ^ Gay, Roxane (2 September 2015). "A Compelling Plot Gives Way To Farce In Franzen's Purity". NPR. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  12. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (2 September 2015). "Franzen's Latest Novel: An Ambitious But Tarnished 'Purity'". NPR. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  13. ^ Al-Shawaf, Rayyan (3 September 2015). "Our reviewer read Franzen's Purity so you don't have to". The Chicago Reader. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  14. ^ CML (8 September 2015). "Jonathan Franzen's Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit". Gawker Review of Books. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  15. ^ C. Rodman, Melissa (7 September 2015). "Franzen's 'Purity' Muddied by Preachiness, Length". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  16. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (August 24, 2015). "Review: In 'Purity,' Jonathan Franzen Hits a New Octave". The New York Times. 
  17. ^ Blair, Elaine (Sep 2015). "The Prisoner of Sex". Harper's: 84–88. 
  18. ^ "Being Franzen's friends". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2015-12-29. 
  19. ^ https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/26/magazine/jonathan-franzen-is-fine-with-all-of-it.html
  20. ^ Wagmeister, Elizabeth (2016). "Showtime Lands Daniel Craig, Scott Rudin Limited Series 'Purity'". Daily Variety. 
  21. ^ Maxwell, Dominic (2018). "David Hare: 'I am sick to death of hearing about the need for strong women as protagonists'". The Times. 
  22. ^ "Jonathan Franzen Is Fine With All of It". Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  23. ^ "Daniel Craig Drama 'Purity' Won't Air on Showtime Until After 'Bond 25'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2018-07-11.