Saturday, September 30, 2017

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Scribner: 10/3/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476716732

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in New York City during the Depression and World War II.

In 1934 Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father, Eddie, to visit Dexter Styles at his Manhattan Beach home. Styles is with the mob and Eddie is looking for a job with him so he can leave his job as a bagman for a crooked union official. Styles insists that people who come to visit him bring their families, but Anna is the only family member who can go with Eddie. His wife is at home caring for their severely disable daughter, Lydia. Part of the reason Eddie wants a job with Styles is for the better pay, which will enable him to buy a specially made chair for Lydia.

Years later the world is at war. Anna is nineteen and supporting her mother and sister by working at the Brooklyn Navel Yard. Her father, Eddie disappeared five years ago, leaving his family behind with no word. After seeing divers in the yard, Anna is intrigued and obsessively sets her sights on becoming the first female diver. It is at this time that she meets Dexter Styles as an adult, at one of his nightclubs. When Anna meets him again, she hopes he can tell her what happened to her father.

The quality of the writing is brilliant. Manhattan Beach manages to capture the time and place to such an extent that you are transported there. What starts out as a seemingly simple, well-written novel evolves into a much more rich and intricate story following three narratives. Adding to the depth of the prose is the ocean as an ever prevalent motif in Manhattan Beach. It transfixes Anna, transports Eddie. It enthralls, mesmerizes, destroys, saves, engages, and employees. It offers life and death.

The characters are wonderfully realized and complex. The strengths and flaws of her diverse characters are firmly established. Egan has some surprising phrasing and apt, remarkable descriptions that utterly capture the moment and the emotions and sensations a character is feeling. Her characters are allowed to be themselves, full of conflicting allegiances and emotions,  without resorting to clich├ęs.

In the final analysis, however, I do wish that Egan has chosen to keep the story focused on Anna. While I can logically see the wisdom behind the choice to branch out and spend so much time on all three narratives, Anna was the character I was drawn to and cared anxiously about. She had my fealty and support, while the actions of Styles and Eddie were more of a passing interest.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

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