Review: Manhattan Beach
After Anna Kerrigan’s gangster father disappears, she comes of age during WWII and begins a career as a diver working on warships but her father’s seedy legacy lingers on in her life.
Jennifer Egan’s Visit From the Goon Squad was a masterpiece in entangled stories. Manhattan Beach weaves a few narratives together in a much less haphazard but also less enticing story: Anna Kerrigan’s father is a gangster in New York, her mother is an ex-Follies dancer, and her sister suffered a birth injury and is permanently disabled. After Anna’s father disappears, Anna is working a tedious job doing parts inspections for the war when she notices the divers going under water in the harbor and is suddenly drawn to them. After becoming a diver herself, she becomes entangled with Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner who was a contact of her father’s. Styles lives in Manhattan Beach on Coney Island, and Anna visits his home as a child with her father and then visits again with her sister as an adult.
It is clear from this book that Jennifer Egan did her research on women in the war, gangsters in New York of the era, and the war in general. But in her attempt to pull it all together to build a narrative, it gets bogged down in the story lines of Anna, her father, and Dexter Styles. There is little suspense and the characters lack dimension. During the time when Anna’s whole family is together in their apartment, the story holds together and the characters come alive. The forays into gangster conversations and even Anna’s career seem plastic and the characters’ motivations are just not clear. It reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things– like the author’s desire to paint a picture of a woman’s life at a certain point in history just made the story overly earnest and stilted. In some ways it seems like too modern of a perspective, in that there is little mention of the shaming that would have been directed at a woman of her status. Although Anna experiences adversity, it’s hard to really grasp the amount of strength she would have to have to pursue her diving career. Class is an issue, but it’s just not felt in the way that makes it real. Anna is too impervious. The thing I loved about Egan’s previous book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was how it captured the different phases of people’s lives, the miasma of disappointment and indecision and inertia that engulfs people as they get older. Manhattan Beach shows glimpses of that, for example when Dexter Styles tries and fails to redirect his career, and when Anna’s father does the same. But the story seems so stretched to force Anna into her diving career and into the storyline with Dexter Styles, it loses sight of her humanity.
Egan’s descriptions of war ships residing in the bays of New York City are moving. The machinery of war dominating the shorelines of New York is an overwhelming image. Her portrayal of the tedium of the work done by women and the men who were not fighting is fascinating. Anna’s dive-mates are all men who are not fighting in the war, and I wish their stories had eclipsed some of the gangster stories. Marle, the only black person on the dive crew, is marginalized in the same way that Anna is. Their wary interactions and eventual friendship were captivating. Overall it’s a good story, but uneven and viewed through a modern lens.
The book was recently longlisted for the National Book Award, and Jennifer Egan won a Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad.
My thanks to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for providing me an electronic copy of this book. My opinions are my own.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Simon and Schuster
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