If you’re a Jennifer Egan fan, you’ve already heard that this book is a bit different from her others, in that it’s traditional historical fiction. If you loved Goon Squad, this book isn’t anything like that one, but don’t let that keep you from reading it.
Manhattan Beach tells the story of Anna, who grows up during the time of World War II. The book begins when she’s eleven and accompanies her father to the posh Brooklyn home of Dexter Styles for an important business meeting. Years later, her father has disappeared and Anna is doing war work at a Navy Yard factory and living with her mother and her severely disabled sister. She’s fascinated by the sea and wants to become a diver, but there are no women divers at the time. Anna thought she gave up on her father long ago, even before he abandoned the family. But an encounter with Dexter Styles reminds her how much she never knew about her father.
This is a historical novel about the Depression and WWII, particularly the naval work in New York that supported the war effort. It’s also a deep-dive (forgive the pun) into the Irish and Italian under-world of the time. But every good historical novel balances the historic and the personal, and Egan does that in her thoughtful exploration of Anna as a character.
It was here she’d first perceived the suctioning dark and felt its danger. She’d been fending off that danger ever since. A different kind of girl. How did you know what kind of girl you were, with no one around you? Maybe those kinds of girls were simply girls who’d no one to tell them they were not those kinds of girls.
Egan tells the story from three perspectives: Anna, her father, and Styles. All three are sympathetic, interesting characters, despite their various misdeeds. I really liked most of this book, particularly Egan’s writing and her thematic descriptions of the sea. There’s a ton of historical detail which I always appreciate. Although the lengthy descriptions of diving lost me at times, Egan takes this point in time and researches multiple aspects (the war, the Navy Yard, factory work, Irish and Italian organized crime) thoroughly.
However, the narrative does jump around a lot (both in narrator and chronology), and that was distracting at times. There were a few plot points I found problematic, although I won’t go into detail here. I will say I found the conclusion of the book unsatisfying. I also felt that Egan kept the other characters at a distance. I would have liked to know more about Anna’s friends, but they never felt fleshed out. Rather, Anna has a “bad-girl” friend, a married friend, and a gay male friend, but (like Anna’s mother and free-spirit aunt) they never felt like real people, and maybe that’s because Anna essentially goes through her journey alone.
I recommend this book for those who enjoy well-written, character-driven historical fiction, especially if you’re interested in New York and World War II. For those looking for something like Goon Squad, you may find yourself disappointed.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Edelweiss and publisher Simon & Schuster. This book was published October 3, 2017.
AND: I want to link to this review of the book at The Evening Reader, because it expresses well (without spoilers) some of the issues I had. We may or may not be thinking of the same things, but then that’s not really the point.