I think when I first this book, I was sort of in the haze of having read The Corrections a few times, and in the somewhat backlash to Franzen. Now, I feel like there’s been a kind of Franzennaisance. In this new world, his novels are a little more familiar and even with the middling reviews for Purity helped to create a stabilizing of the market, so to speak.
Anyway, re-reading the novel now, I liked it a lot better. One of the elements that stands out in The Corrections is how the deeply flawed family led to adult children who are struggling with a) having families at all and b) having families but over-correcting on how to be in them. In this novel, while parents are still part of the conversation, the focus is more on the adult lives of a certain kind of middle-class, educated and ostensibly liberal set of white people and their roles as adults in their own lives and as parents. These figures are also more or less contemporaneous with Franzen himself. Our main figures are Walter and Patty, a married couple who met while Walter was in law school and Patty in college. In addition, the third wheel of this group (or more so, the third wheel shifts at different times in the novel) is Richard Katz, a former post-punk frontman who Walter knows from college who has had a recent turn as an alt-country troubadour, whose success is built upon an album he wrote after an affair with Patty. Patty for her part is a former college athlete who meets Walter and Richard and can’t reconcile her admiration and attraction for their sharp contrasts throughout most of her life. We also spend a generous part of the novel with Joey, Walter and Patty’s college aged son who has decided to rebel by becoming a Republican.
It’s post 9/11 America and Walter has leveraged a law career with 3M into a environmental advocacy job that pays handsomely and sort of kind of maybe trades out his morals for actual world impact, or at least he tells himself this. Patty is lost, but finding herself.