Much has been made of the fact that Jonathan Franzen's new novel Purity has a young woman as its main character. Since Jonathan Franzen isn't known for particularly popular statements about either women or young people, this was big news when it first broke. And now that the book is out, we can see for ourselves how Franzen has managed to write a young female protagonist.
However, Purity "Pip" Tyler for whom the book is named is not the only prominent female character by a long shot. There are several women who take center stage is Purity. In fact, of the four characters from whose perspective Franzen narrates sections of the novel, two are women. And many more female characters shape the plot in crucial ways. For better or for worse, women are an important part of Purity, and, in fact, feminism is one of the main topics that the novel seeks to examine.
So, how does all this play out on the page? Well, as one would expect from a novelist of Franzen's caliber, some of his female characters are very well done. However, others are less fully realized and believable. Here is a ranking of six of the most prominent female characters in Purity from best to worst, and how they compare to one another.
Yes, surprisingly, I don't consider Franzen's best female character to be his protagonist, but rather the dynamic, capable, and sadly under-utilized Leila Hedou. Leila is a self-aware bundle of contradictions and eccentricities — Texas born but of Lebanese descent; a liberal but still enamored of the Lone Star state; a firm feminist who pursued her married writing professor and has few female friends. Leila is driven, competitive, and resourceful — and a Pultizer Prize-winning journalist to boot. Plus, her personal life is one of the most unusual you'll likely read about, and yet it not only comes across as supremely genuine on the page, but the practical, no-nonsense way that Leila manages it is enough to make you love her.
Sadly, Leila also doesn't have much screen time. Although one of the book's seven sections is narrated from her perspective, it's one of the shorter sections in the book, and afterwards, Leila is mostly sidelined.
Purity "Pip" Tyler
The book devotes more time to Pip's perspective than any other character — and she is quite a character. She's young and hopelessly lacking direction, more angry than she realizes and expressing it in all the wrong ways. She seems unconsciously bent on self-destruction at the beginning of the book, but we also get to watch her slowly try to grow up and find her footing.
There are aspects to her personality that strain credulity — I find it incredibly difficult to imagine that a young woman would be so overtly sarcastic and hostile towards her boss, for instance, even if she does have a self-destructive streak — but on the whole she's a solid and consistently interesting character.
The former lover and long-time confidant of hacker and activist Andreas Wolf, Annagret is one of the more inconsistent characters in the novel, but still definitely one of the more compelling. At the beginning of the novel, she recruits Pip to The Sunlight Project, Wolf's WikiLeaks-style operation in Bolivia. She comes across as observant, capable, and a force to be reckoned with. And indeed, she does play a crucial role in the novel, particularly in Wolf's backstory where we see her first as an abused teenager and later living with Wolf for most of her twenties.
In these earlier glimpses, however, Annagret isn't given nearly as much agency or portrayed as a well-rounded character. There's also very little indication as to how she might have transformed from a teary, easily controlled young woman in her 20s into the commanding presence she's became by the time she meets Pip. These inconsistencies make it harder to love her, but she's still fairly excellent.
Pip's friend Colleen is an important part of her life while at The Sunlight Project headquarters, and in fact is one of the few people there who voices any criticism of the project or its founder. Her complicated resentment of and infatuation with Andreas Wolf makes her all the more compelling. Ultimately, however, Colleen simply isn't given the depth that she could have had. She rejects Pip upon realizing Wolf is more interested in Pip than herself, almost as a matter of course, as though the choice had been made for her. As she is the closest thing Pip has to a friend in the whole novel, it's disappointing that she ultimately falls so flat.
Andreas' mother Katya naturally plays a huge role in his life and development, and she is emphatically not a good mother. However, she also comes across as unfairly demonized in the text. A large part of this may be due to the fact that she is exclusively seen through the eyes of her fairly narcissistic son, but it seems as though we as readers are meant to take for granted that she is a terrible person who poisons the world around her, rather than as a woman struggling with mental illness and doing her best as a parent. We rarely get much sense of what she herself might be thinking or feeling, nor is presented as overly important. What matters most in the novel is the effect she has on her son, rather than who she is as a person.
Anabel Laird is outrageously unreasonable to the point that at places I found I simply couldn't believe that she could ever be real — and she is made all the more unbelievable by the novel never suggests, either directly or indirectly, that she might suffer from some mental illness or just might benefit from therapy. An artist perpetually incapable of finishing anything, Anabel manages to alienate virtually every person in her life. She rejects and openly despises her father mainly because of his company's business practices rather than personal issues. She uses feminism like a weapon in disagreements with her husband. She holds everyone and everything to impossible standards and would rather withdraw utterly from the world rather than accept that the world is simply imperfect.
Reading about her is frankly exhausting, and very few aspects of her personality feel anything but alien. If people like Anabel Laird exist, I am perfectly happy not knowing.