Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. 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 had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career with the Ziegfeld Follies, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a nightclub, she chances to meet Dexter Styles again, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father's life, the reasons he might have vanished"--
Fast-forward seven years and the United States has entered World War II, Eddie has vanished, and Anna is a 19-year-old working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Bored with her job inspecting machined parts for warships, she sets her sights on learning how to dive. Women have taken many jobs at the Naval Yard — even welding — since the war effort sent most working-age men overseas, but none has yet become a diver. In the midst of finding her way into this new role, Anna also has to deal with a fresh encounter with the mysterious Dexter Styles and the possibility of learning the truth about what happened to her father.
In addition to the time shift, Egan shifts the narrative's viewpoint back and forth among Anna, Eddie, and Dexter. Often in novels that employ this tactic, I find myself uninterested in one or more of the perspectives and impatient to return to the compelling storyline. I felt some of that same impatience here, but not because any of the stories were uninteresting — instead, they all were very interesting and I wasn't ready to let go of one to embrace another. Not all of the characters are good, and their stories don't always end well, but I found myself wanting the best even for the worst of them.
We don't get any story segments told from the point of view of the sea, but it is just as much a character as Anna, Eddie and the other people who populate her world. Consider Egan's description of the first time Anna's disabled sister, Lydia, visits the beach:
Anna leaned her head against her sister's and watched a long wave form, stretching until it achieved translucence, then somersaulting forward and collapsing into creamy suds that eked toward them over the sand, nearly touching the wheels of Lydia's chair. Then another wave gathered, reaching, stretching, a streak of silver dashing along its surface where the weak sunlight touched it. The strange, violent, beautiful sea: this was what she had wanted Lydia to see. It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn across a mystery.
And again, when Eddie looks out on the ocean from the deck of a merchant marine ship:
... an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, wax, hammered silver, wrinkled flesh. It had structure and layers you couldn't see from land.
I've always been drawn to the sea, perhaps because I spent the first eight years of my life living on Long Island, just a block from the ocean, and I thought these passages articulated my feelings about it beautifully. Another personal connection that won't be of interest to anyone but me is that both my grandfather and my father worked as longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks. The stories they used to tell, though sanitized for younger listeners, fit right in with what Egan depicts.
Beyond the compelling storyline and deft characterization, the historic bits felt very real — the landscape of Brooklyn, the mechanics of deep-sea diving, the life of a merchant mariner at sea were sharply drawn and exquisitely detailed. Some readers might find the details too much, in fact, but I found it kept me nicely grounded in the time period.
She is particularly close with her father and joins him, on some of his “shady” outings, working for some NY gangsters. A few years later, her father mysteriously disappears, leaving a painful, hole in her life. We skip ahead a few years and WWII has started. Anna gets a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and here she discovers the diving trade, where divers in full gear, are sent underwater to repair ships. Women are not allowed to dive but Anna persists and becomes one of the first female divers.
This is an excellent historical drama, impeccably researched, following Anna through her young adulthood, as she fights a male dominated system and also tries to investigate the disappearance of her beloved father.
Egan's novel A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, but do not expect a similar book. She takes this one into fresh territory, but her craftsmanship remains steadfast.
Eddie hated his job, and homelife offered no sanctuary for him. He had another daughter, Lydia, who was physically lovely, but brain-damaged. Lydia and her special needs, as well as the juxtaposition in her (as he saw it) of outward beauty with total disability, educed in Eddie both rage and self-loathing, leaving him numb and spent. “She was not as she should be, not remotely, and the ghost of what she should have been clung to her always, a reproachful twin.”
Only in Anna’s company could he relax and feel good about his life: “She was his secret treasure, his one pure, unspoiled source of joy.” He felt about her that she "pumped life into him as surely as Lydia drained it.” He loved her voice, the pattering quality of it, and the feel of her small hand inside his.
When Lydia's doctor recommended that she have an expensive special chair to help her sit upright, Eddie needed more money, and went to work for Dexter Styles, a powerful member of local organized crime who managed a number of clubs offering the opportunity for illegal pastimes. Even at the upper levels of crime, however, there was a hierarchy. While there were many people in Dexter’s own pocket, he himself was controlled by a Mr. Q., who basically owned him. As long as Dexter played by the rules, he was rewarded. But like Eddie, Dexter constantly has to be aware of his place and modulate his behavior accordingly. Eddie unexpectedly gave Dexter a taste of escape from the limitations put on him.
Eddie worked for Styles as his ombudsman, checking up on Dexter's employees and later on his rivals. In a clever description of Eddie's appeal to Dexter, Egan writes:
“Kerrigan’s cipherlike nature had been essential to the job. He could go anywhere, find out anything. Through him, Dexter had tasted an otherworldly freedom from the constraints of time and space.”
Unfortunately though, Eddie could not take Anna along on his forays to nightclubs and gambling dens, and they grew apart, to Eddie’s infinite regret.
The story shifts, and picks up again when Anna is 19. Her father had disappeared five years before. They never knew what happened to him. She felt sorrow at first, replaced by anger.
The country is now at war, and Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where, because of the shortage of men, women are allowed to hold jobs that had always excluded them. Through perseverance and grit, she becomes the first female diver, “the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations,” helping to repair huge ships in the Manhattan harbor.
One night while out with a girlfriend, she ran into Dexter Styles at one of his clubs. He didn't recognize her, so she used a false name with him, “Anna Feeney" (taking a neighbor’s last name). But she realizes he may know what happened to her father, and she continues to seek him out to get the mystery solved once and for all.
Discussion: There is some beautifully-phrased and deftly-constructed prose in this book. For example, when diving, Anna thinks:
“The ship felt alert, alive. It exuded a hum that traveled through her fingers up her arm: the vibration of thousands of souls teeming within. Like a skyscraper turned on its side.”
Or Anna, walking alone on the streets of New York:
“After years of distance, Anna’s father returned to her. She couldn’t see him, but she felt the knotty pain of his hands in her armpits as he slung her off the ground to carry her. 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.”
And there is this insight by and about Dexter, who is musing about the difficulty of working with women:
“… this was the problem of men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck the women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.”
And perhaps my favorite image, when the author describes Dexter Style’s house near the ocean:
“…a rowdy flapping of green-and-yellow striped awnings.”
Evaluation: Egan, who is the author of five books of fiction, including A Visit from the Good Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Books Critics Circle Award, takes on four big motifs with this book, any one of which could have made up a separate book: the dynamics of a family stressed by economic hardship and the birth of a disabled child; the nature of organized crime; the clash of gender and ethnicity in the 1940s; and life in the Merchant Marines, which serves as an auxiliary to the Navy during times of war.
For the most part, I think the author gives adequate treatment to all of these themes except perhaps for the organized crime aspect of the book; some of what happened to the characters because of their associations with this element remained opaque (to me) at the end of the story.
Nevertheless, this is a stirring and poignant story filled with memorable characters drawn with perceptive contours. The author’s research was extensive, and I think she adroitly captures a slice of life in wartime America. In addition, the issues raised and complexity of the story make this book an excellent choice for book clubs.
Egan's latest offering takes place in America during the Depression. Twelve-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who she perceives to be important. Anna can't help but notice the lavish house equipped with servants, toys for the children, and the pact between Styles and her father.
Years later the country is at war, Anna's father has disappeared, and she has to support her mother and disabled sister with work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Because of the war, women are allowed to work and perform jobs that were traditionally jobs for men. She becomes the first female diver—an incredibly dangerous occupation—repairing naval ships. Anna meets Dexter Styles at a nightclub and realizes that he is the man she visited with her father before his disappearance. Styles has ties to the mob and Anna begins to understand the complexity of her father's life.
The first section is smart, sharp, and brilliantly executed. Egan's writing is solid, exactly what you would expect. Then the novel makes one of many jumps in time and the story becomes scattered. There is a complete lack of harmony and the reader is left with a rambling narrative that is a mash-up of three stories. Hinging on boring at times, I didn't connect with the characters, or the plot, and this is disappointing because Egan has obviously done her homework.
I really felt like I was living in that era while reading this book. The author did such a great job in so aspects with this book.
A coming of age story that, for me, was excellent, unputdownable and one that I will surely think back to 2017 and consider it one of the best reads that year.
Now, I am certainly driven to read her first major prize winning book "A Visit From the Goon Squad" a copy of which I have, but have never done so.
Thanks to Scribner and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
It’s difficult to pin this book down. Egan’s writing is once again on target; it flows effortlessly through various POVs, beautifully descriptive without feeling overdone. The story ranges through characters and time, but I found her handling of this clear and easily maneuvered. Somehow, though, it all fell a bit flat for me. Egan didn’t do anything wrong in this novel, but I think I miss the boldness and unpredictability of Goon Squad. I still recommend Manhattan Beach—especially to historical fiction readers who enjoy WWII period books. PK
Manhattan Beach is by no means an action-filled story. In fact, the biggest complaint about the novel from others is that it moves slowly. To me, it is a character-driven story, and the slow pacing works as Ms. Egan affords readers the opportunity to intimately understand Anna, her motivations, her passions, and her schedule. At the same time, it allows readers to learn about wartime New York and what women experienced as they went to work in roles previously held by men. We see how the gangsters transitioned from the Prohibition era to the wartime, how things changed for everyone in any role, and watch as society evolves.
This historical aspect of the story is by far its strongest one. Particularly interesting was Anna’s struggles to become a deep-sea diver. History books and wartime anecdotes would have you believe that industries, particularly those involving manual labor, welcomed women with open arms to fill the voids left by the men going overseas to fight. Ms. Egan shows that this is not true. The hatred Anna faces as well as the scorn, doubt, and general prejudice she experiences just to be able to put on the diving suit is disturbing. Yet, on some levels, the misogyny surrounding her decision to dive is not surprising in the least. While it is nice to think that Rosie the Riveter, and the women who answered the call of that advertisement, faced no issues, we just have to look to today’s society to realize the likelihood of that having actually happened is nil. Anna’s story in that regard is just one more in a long line of gender bias and prejudice women continue to experience today.
The second part of Anna’s story, that of her personal life, also provides historical context that educates and intrigues. As with the idealized impression of women in blue-collar manual labor roles, I never thought that the idea of a single woman living alone in the 1940s was scandalous behavior. After all, there have been women-only boarding houses in existence for decades by this point in history. In my mind, the same would seem to hold true with going out without a chaperone. However, Anna’s experiences burst this idyllic bubble of mine just as it did with Rosie the Riveter. Yet, while society may still see women as fragile and in need of protection, Anna’s story shows how the war slowly changes this attitude. Ms. Egan, through Anna, provides a clearer picture of just what it meant to be an unmarried woman during World War II.
Even though the story revolves around Anna, Ms. Egan uses multiple viewpoints to round out her story. These character point-of-views fill in the gaps that Anna will never learn and help answer mysteries to which Anna will never obtain the answers. While Ms. Egan could have told the story strictly through Anna’s eyes, the multiple perspectives afford the reader the opportunity to garner the whole truth, particularly around Anna’s missing father, while allowing Anna to remain ignorant of the truth, something that feels essential to her character. In essence, they leave readers with no unanswered questions and better insight to what was occurring behind Anna’s back while remaining true to all of the characters and the story.
While I enjoyed reading Manhattan Beach, finding it intriguing and educational, I can see why others are struggling to finish it. It is not a complicated plot, and there is very little action. Without the historical context, it would indeed be boring; if the history doesn’t interest you, then it is boring. Nothing is much of a surprise, and while we get to know Anna very well, she does not develop much as a character. For me, the history and the mystery of the father’s disappearance, no matter how predictable, were enough to overshadow the predictability and to pique my interest. Whether it will be enough for you is up to your individual tastes in stories.
Years later, the country is at war, and her father has disappeared. Anna is working at the Brooklyn Navy yard, and eventually becomes the first woman diver, fixing ships below the water. She encounters Styles again at a nightclub he owns, and their lives become intertwined in unexpected ways.
This is an immensely satisfying historical novel.
I was pretty darn shocked to seen that Egan had written historical fiction, a genre not known for experimentation. To be honest I was also a bit disappointed, historical fiction is not generally a favorite genre for me, especially WWII set historical fiction. I should have had more faith, I should have known that Egan would redefine the term historical fiction. I should have known that she would still play with time because it is still true that some things that happened 20 years ago are more current and relevant than things that happened yesterday, so that in storytelling events should not be ordered strictly temporally. I should have known that Egan would still use the events of the book to find what defines the humanity (or maybe the limitations of being human) in each character. I should have known that where most historical fiction is about the time, and people are placed in that time to illustrate certain things that Egan's book would be primarily about the main characters. That despite the meticulously researched and perfectly drawn time and place, this book is about Anna, in all her glory. It is about this badass feminist (before that was a word), a woman mourning her beloved father, without the closure of his documented death, a girl who wants to be what her mother wants but doesn't know what that is, a sister desperate to bring happiness to a sister locked in her own world, and a lover and friend unable to give enough of herself or ask enough from others to fully experience the joys of either role. The setting, WWII Brooklyn (my beloved-I lived in walking distance of the Navy Yards, before they were made fancy and the running suit clad made men were everywhere, and it is my spiritual home) with its war effort and its mob activity and its poverty it provides a frame for the main event that is Anna.
This is great storytelling.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
MY RATING ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️▫️
PUBLISHED October 3, 2017
An poignant and compelling novel which is deep in strength and courage and rich in historical detail.
A spirited eleven year-old, Anna Kerrigan accompanies her beloved father, Eddie to the grand Brooklyn beach home of handsome underworld figure, Dexter Styles. It’s a cold winter day in 1934 and Dexter is charmed by the indomitable Anna who delightedly removes her shoes on the beach and puts her tiny toes into the frigid surf. With his family desperately in need of money, Eddie soon begins working for Dexter, serving as his “eyes and ears”. MANHATTAN BEACH is about how the lives of Anna, Eddie and Dexter become intertwined over the course of time and how time continues to move us forward.
In the jump to the next decade we find, Anna as a young woman working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She is battling the male-dominated hierarchy to wear a 200 pound diving suit, and become the first woman commercial repair and salvage diver. Eddie had devastatingly and mysteriously disappeared five years earlier. Anna has never gotten over his disappearance and is still awaiting his return. Dexter has become more established and entrenched in his nefarious world, of nightclubs and gambling rackets. And it is in one of his nightclubs that he see’s Anna again. He is somehow drawn to her, not realizing they had met ten years earlier. Anna believes that Dexter might know something about what happened to her father. Anna and Dexter’s relationship reaches its’ peak in a remote boathouse on Manhattan Beach, which ties the destinies of Anna, Eddie and Dexter forever.
MANHATTAN BEACH is an absorbing historical fiction novel that exhibits painstaking research and magnificently captures a feeling of the NYC waterfront during the depression and WWII. The emotions in the novel; whether fear, loneliness, pleasure or passion, evoked by Anna, Eddie and Dexter are rich and palpable. Anna shows tremendous strength, courage and perseverance, a woman ahead of her times.
Water plays an central symbol within the story. Whether it was walking on the beach, taking her sister to “see the sea”, watching battleships being built in the naval yard or diving into the silence of the the harbor floor, Anna finds much pleasure as well as solace in the ocean, as do Eddie and Dexter.
JENNIFER EGAN has expertly delivered a portrait of three people’s lives which are altered forever by a winter meeting on Manhattan Beach. She has woven a compelling tale about fortitude and the will to survive.
Jennifer Egan also authored the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach has been Awarded the National Book Award for Fiction (2017), and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2018)
When the book begins, we are introduced to the heroine of the book, Anna Kerrigan. She is just twelve years old and she is obviously daddy's little girl. Anna and her father have a very close relationship and a special bond. It's apparent that Anna's father is involved in some sort of mafia/gangster activity and he begins going away a lot. Because he is gone so much and Anna is no longer allowed to join him, their relationship begins to wither.
At 19, Anna's father has disappeared and she becomes the provider for her mother and handicapped sister. She tires of her factory job and pursues her desire to become a diver. It is unheard of for a woman to be a diver and Anna has to fight constantly to fulfill her dreams. Most people would have given up, but she let nothing get in her way.
Around this same time, Anna also becomes involved with a dangerous man who may be able to help her figure out what happened to her father. There are many lovely characters in the story that kept me interested through the boring parts. Another thing I loved about the book is that the sea wasn’t just the setting, but it was almost a character in the novel itself. Jennifer Egan is an amazing writer and I look forward to trying some of her other books, which I understand are much different from this one.
"Manhattan Beach is so rich in detail and atmosphere; such an exploration of underworlds of all kinds, filled with lessons on lifelines and buoyancy and how to bear life’s weight by diving deep into it. Jennifer Egan has masterfully conjured an era we are on the cusp of losing. Her novel is an absorbing story, beautifully written. Its strands of subtle intrigue and quiet heroism make you reluctant to leave each page while eager to get to the next."—M.L. Stedman
Anna is naive but brave and daring; Eddie is a charmer who is able to connect relationships, but after knowing too much "disappears." Other interesting characters include Dexter Styles, a middle level mobster with "respectable" connections through his wife's family. Brianna, is Anna's floozy aunt who eventually becomes a source of support of Anna.
The story really has several plot lines intertwining and all were interesting in their own. Sometimes there is a bit too much coincidence and sometimes the author's sentences and wording are confusing to me.
The mob connections are especially confusing at times, but overall enjoyed the book.
This is a solid, well-researched historical novel. There is none of the innovation or surprise of Jennifer Egan's best known work, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan uses instead a traditional approach to this traditional tale. And while I thought the novel lost intensity towards the end and was irked by an uncharacteristic and stupid action by one of the central characters, readers who enjoy solid historical fiction about WWII will find Manhattan Beach to be an excellent read.