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Manhattan Beach

Review

Manhattan Beach

Is there anything Jennifer Egan can’t do? Her books have consistently defied expectations and kept readers wondering where her creative energy will take her next. Her previous work, the multi-award-winning A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, was boldly experimental in form. In her new effort, MANHATTAN BEACH, Egan seems determined that she can write a traditional narrative, a historical novel, no less, one that is informed by archival research and maintains a largely linear narrative structure. And, of course (because she’s Jennifer Egan), she doesn’t just pull this off --- she writes what’s sure to be one of the best historical novels of this (or any) year.

At the center of the book is Anna Kerrigan, who has spent her whole life in New York City. As a child, she cared for her younger sister, who was beautiful but afflicted by cerebral palsy at a time in the early 20th century when disabilities were neither well understood nor well supported. Anna’s mother is a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, and her father (who she idolizes) does some kind of work that she doesn’t fully understand, but instinctively knows is perhaps not entirely, well, legal. As a young girl, Anna is taken by her father to the home of his charismatic and powerful associate, Dexter Styles, a visit that makes an impression on her but that she doesn’t really think too much about until their paths cross again years later.

"Egan’s well-researched narrative is detailed but never bogged down in particulars, and she successfully creates suspense even when offering rich details. I defy anyone with claustrophobia to read the descriptions of diving without developing sweaty palms!"

Anna is now a young woman. World War II is in full swing, and she’s helping her family by working at a mind-numbing job measuring fasteners at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Her father disappeared years previously, and Anna can’t stop thinking about where he might have gone and why. She secretly longs to escape as well. Tired of caring for her sister, smothered by her mother’s unhappiness and bored by her job, she spends her lunch hours riding around the Naval Yard on a borrowed bicycle, hoping for a change of scene, a new outlook.

Which is exactly what she finds, first when she becomes determined to be trained as a diver, one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in the whole Naval Yard, and then when, during a night out with a friend, she encounters the nightclub owner --- none other than Dexter Styles. These two encounters help to transform Anna’s prospects and, on at least some level, bring her closer to her absent father, even as the mystery of his disappearance remains elusive.

Egan’s novel is a fascinating glimpse at life in wartime, especially for women. We’ve all seen images of Rosie the Riveter, but MANHATTAN BEACH goes well beyond this trope to illustrate the complexities of life for both single and married women during World War II. Anna’s hopes for personal transformation and independence are complicated by larger social pressures and realities; her work in the Naval Yard also puts her in contact with other marginalized people whose experiences and challenges are both like and unlike her own. Egan’s well-researched narrative is detailed but never bogged down in particulars, and she successfully creates suspense even when offering rich details. I defy anyone with claustrophobia to read the descriptions of diving without developing sweaty palms!

MANHATTAN BEACH is also a riveting noir thriller about memorable gangsters, shifting loyalties, and betrayal and its consequences. And, at its heart, it’s a dual narrative of a father and daughter who are both on voyages of different sorts --- journeys that may or may not lead them back to one another.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 6, 2017

Manhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1476716730
  • ISBN-13: 9781476716732