Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: Manhattan Beach

Author: Jennifer Egan
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.

Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world. It is a magnificent novel by the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the great writers of our time.

“Baloney,” he said, kissing her again. “You were having the time of your life.”

She heard the muffled jingle of coins in his trouser pockets. His hand was a socket she affixed hers to always, wherever they went, even when she didn’t care to. Anna stopped walking, stunned by the power of these impressions. Without thinking, she lifted her fingers to her face, half expecting the warm, bitter smell of his tobacco.

“Some men find it a bitter pill to swallow, working for me,” Styles said. “They don’t like the change in times.”

What a feast of a book! Such beautiful and lyrical words jump off the page from the first sentence to the last. This is a lovely, gorgeously-written book that effectively interweaves three separate but connected characters, each with their own stories, all tied to the desire for reinvention. Manhattan Beach is a historical novel that tells the story of Anna, a young woman who works at a naval yard during World War II with a fierce determination to be a professional diver. It is also the story of her father, Eddie, a man who seeks out opportunities on the edges of organized crime to do work that is more or less legal and Dexter Styles the quasi-legit gangster he works for. But this is not a story about organized crime. Set in New York City during the Great Depression and the early years of the Second World War, this historical setting will appeal to fans of any world war setting. Egan’s look at a woman’s place in this world is what made it such a phenomenal read for me!

The quality of the writing is brilliant, as mentioned earlier. Egan manages to make Manhattan Beach a reality for readers, transporting them there through words, descriptions, and vivid use of imagery. Her characters come alive, although I was always hoping for more emphasis to be solely placed on Anna, an exquisite and fully developed character. The heroine is fascinating, standing out not only for her quest to become a diver, but for her strength to build her own life away from the confines of what is to be expected from a “woman” in this era. Egan’s portrayal of the work happening on the home front while a war is waging elsewhere, is inspiring and truly factual. Her research and care with these topics is evident and appreciated by readers.

***A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers at Scribner in exchange for my honest review***

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