Saturday, January 23, 2016

Purity Book Discussion Guide

Photo of book Purity
Book:     Purity
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardcover, 2015

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book here are three reasons you may not. 
  1. If you need a quick read. This is a tome, which is obvious if you purchase a physical copy, but less obvious for an audio book (which I highly recommend). Not only are there a lot of words, but the interconnectedness of the characters, the character development and the weight and complexity of the words all weave together to create a novel that truly takes time and attention to read. 
  2. If you are looking for action. This is a novel about relationships, secrets, identity and trust. The moments of action frame the individual transformations from youthful idealism to practical understanding or rejection of the world we inhabit. 
  3. If you like novels that follow a chronological timeline. If Time Traveler’s Wife confused you with its time shifts, Purity will really mess with your temporal understanding. Characters melt into their past lives to reveal a critical turning point as they grew up and just as seamlessly re-emerge at a future point in time and pass the baton to a new character settling along some past moment on the timeline. 
However, if you're not in any of the above categories then I highly recommend Purity, especially the audio book. I listened to the audio book and the voices of the characters are outstanding and helped me track who was speaking. The only downside was not being able to mark all of the insightful quotes and critical turning points. 

Purity is a novel that deftly weaves together individual stories that resonate along themes of secrets, identity, trust, search for truth, tragedy and shedding youthful idealism. 

Internet Resources 

The Sunshine Project is modeled on Wikileaks and the contrast between the main stream media and the Sunshine Project is a major them throughout the novel. The New York Times has a 2010 blog that offers a good introduction to how Wikileaks was presented to the mainstream media and the New Yorker Magazine offers a good summary of the start of Wikileaks.

A 2011 New York Times article describes how Wikileaks developed and created a “ new paradigm of transparency and accountability” where “Traditional news organizations watched, first out of curiosity and then with competitive avidity, as WikiLeaks began to reveal classified government information that in some instances brought the lie to the official story.” 

The New York Times also offers a summary of stories on Assange.

For background on East Germany in the 1980s, here is a quick, easy-to-read account sharing  childhood memories of life in East Germany  and short descriptions of living in East Germany.

Franzen also incorporated less pivotal historical references such as Andreas’ interaction with Tad Milliken who bears a strong resemblance to the real life John Mcafee. Read this Wired article on Mcafee if you’re interested in Mcafee’s background.

Major Characters 

Pip (Purity) Tyler: 23-year old woman who grew up near Oakland, CA, raised by her single mother and searching for the truth of who her father is. 
Anabel Tyler: Pip’s mother, Tom’s ex-wife; living completely off the grid and on the far edge of the periphery of sanity. 
Stephen: Pip’s married roommate on whom Pip has a crush. 
Andreas Wolf: A man in in 50s who grew up in East Germany. He founded the Sunshine Project which is headquartered in Bolivia, has low scruples and leans strongly toward insanity. 
Katya Wolf: Andreas mother who suffers from mental illness. 
Annagret: Young German woman, molested by her step-father, whom she is complicit in murdering along with Andreas. 
Horst: Annagrets step father whom Andreas murders 
Leila Helou: Pulitzer-prize winning journalist married to Charles and having an affair with Tom. 
Tom Aberant: founder and editor of nonprofit Denver Independent and also Pip’s father 
Charles Blenheim: Author and Leila’s paraplegic husband 

Sections and Point of View 

Purity in Oakland                    Pip
The Republic of Bad Taste       Andreas
Too Much Information             Leila
Moonglow Diary                      Pip
[lelo9n8aOrd}                         Tom
The Killer                               Andreas
The Rain Comes                      Pip

Discussion Topics 

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Purity which may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed. Topics such as perspective, truth and secrets [link!] are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.


Pip begins the novel, sharing her perspective in the third person. Then the narrative thread is carried by Andreas, Leila and Tom in turn. In addition to switching narrators, the timeline shifts forward and backward both between sections and repeatedly within sections.

How did you find the language and tone change from Pip to the other three perspectives? How did having multiple perspectives enhance the completeness of the novel and your understanding of past lives? Which voice made the strongest impression on you? Which voice did you enjoy reading the most?

The sections told from the perspectives of Pip, Leila, and Andreas are all told in the third person, whereas Tom’s section is told in the first person. How did this change your reading of that section?

Trust, Search for Truth and Secrets 

Trust, truth and secrets are intertwined throughout the novel. From Pip’s search for the truth of who her father is to Leila’s search for the truth of the warhead story to the claim that the Sunshine Project shows light on truth, the power and elusiveness of truth is exposed.

Yet there is a fine line between truth and trust, between trust and secrets. As Pip tells Andreas (page 259),
“The more you try to tell me the truth the weirder this gets.”
Secrets and truth, lies and trust are intricately layered from the start to the end of the novel. Pip and Andreas’ relationships begins, unbeknownst to Pip, in deceit. Andreas has intentionally sought her out to have power over Tom. Yet, their initial emails talk about sharing a secret to ensure they will trust one another.

Similarly, Horst intertwines secrets and trust to gain power over Annagret, page 93, “Tell me a secret of your own, then I’ll know I can trust you,” Horst tells Annagret. and And in the end, Pip lies to both her mother and father about how she discovered the identity of her father.

After discovering who her father is, Pip thinks about, “how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power.” page 539.
Andreas only tells Pip and Tom his and Annagret’s secret of murdering Horst. Why does he reveal his secret to each of these individuals? How does it change his relationship with each of them?

Andrea’s biological father points out the irony in Andreas’ line of work, “pride and a certain gloating satisfaction, given that the last time we met, you were so uninterested in learning secrets. How the world turns, eh? Now secrets are your business.” page 475.

Contrast the personal secrets two individuals share with one another to the secrets the East German government keeps and the secrets the Sunshine Projects tries to expose.

How does secret keeping and secret revealing strengthen and ruin relationships in the novel? How can we minimize the detrimental effects of secrets in our own lives, while preserving relationships?

Parent Child Relationships 

Like truth and deceit, parent-child relationships are a strong pillar of the novel. Three parent- child relationships in particular are explored in detail: Pip and her mother, Annabel and her father, and Andreas and his mother.

In addition, neither Andreas nor Pip learn about their other biological parent until they are adults.

As she floats in the river in Belize, Pip thinks of her mother’s love, “the love that was a granite impediment at the center of her life was also an unshakable foundation; she felt blessed.” page 250. Later Cynthia points out to Pip that Pip’s mother, “created you to be what no one else can be for her.” page 539. And Pip agrees, Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous?” page 540.

Andreas’ muses, “Mostly he heated her, but the potential for compassion continued to lurk in him.” page 479. And later, “She’d always liked everything about him. She, then world’s shittiest mother, was the best mother in the world for him.” page 504.

How does Franzen use layers of time and perspective to unveil the complexities of each of these parent-child relationships? How do your sympathies as a reader shift between the parent and child in each relationship as more detail is revealed?

Male-Female Power Opposition 

Balance of power in male-female relationships is portrayed graphically throughout the novel. Pip reflects on this as she reads about the Sunshine Project, page 58, and is “struck by how many of the exposures had to do with the oppression of women: not just big issues like rape as a war crime and wage inequalities as a deliberate policy but stuff as small as the luridly sexist emails of bank manager in Tennessee.”

Colleen describes her relationship with Andreas, page 254, “Have you even seen a man ballroom dancing with a woman who’s passed out? I feel like that woman. He moves my arms, he leads me around the floor. My head’s flopping like a rag doll’s, but I’m doing this usual dance moves. Like everything’s OK.” Pip has a similar perspective and ponders how Andreas’ fame and confidence reveals Pip’s willingness to submit and obey, page 260. And how “she liked taking orders from him. Liked it more than anything else about him.” page 287

How does Colleen escape from this oppression? Does Pip ever fully escape?


“The irony of the Internet… is that it’s made the journalist’s job so much easier You can research in five minutes what use to take five days. But the Internet is also killing journalism. There’s no substitute for the reporter who’s worked a beat for twenty years, who’s cultivated sources, who can see the difference between a story and a non-story. Google and Accurint can make you feel very smart, but the best stories come when you’re out in the field.” page 204.

And in an interview Leila comments, “The leakers just spew. It takes a journalist to collate and condense and conceptualize what they spew. We may not always have the best of motives, but at least we have some investment in civilization. We’re adults trying to communicate with other adults. The leaders are more like savages.” page 493

How does Leila’s perspective as a journalist relate to your view as a news consumer? Which news sources do you most value? What types of information outside of your community do you rely on? To what extent does the source of the story affect your reaction to a news story? How do you think various news consumers are affected by the source of a news story?


Throughout is interwoven humor. Two humorous quotes that I appreciated:
“A drawback of email was that you could only delete it once: couldn’t crumple it up, fling it to the floor, stomp on it, rip it to shreds, and burn it,” page 59. 
“Texans looked down on the other forty-nine states with a gracious kind of pity.” page 173
What quotes stuck with you?

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