Book Review: Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is an author playing the long game. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Egan has written five vastly different novels, a short story collection, and ‘Black Box,’ a short story released in its entirety via Twitter. Egan has successfully made her way through various genres – gothic (The Keep), thriller (Look at Me), postmodern (A Visit from the Goon Squad) – arriving most recently at historical fiction with her novel Manhattan Beach. Longlisted for a National Book Award prior to publication, Manhattan Beach opens on the eponymously named beach where Eddie Kerrigan, struggling to provide for his family during The Great Depression, has asked his oldest daughter to join him for a meeting with local businessman, Dexter Styles. 11-year-old Anna, feet boldly placed in the cold Atlantic sea, observes this gathering with curiosity and concern: What exactly is her father’s job and how does it involve this young, rich man? Anna will spend much of her life on the surface of these questions, for the three characters are that brief afternoon together for the first and last time. Within the first few pages of the novel, Egan not only introduces the main characters, she artfully provides significant details of their personalities in compact bursts so that when Part One comes to an end, the reader feels at once contented and unsure of whatever might happen next.

The second half of Manhattan Beach shows America in the midst of World War II with Eddie having inexplicably disappeared, leaving behind his wife and two daughters, the youngest of which is severely disabled. To aid in the war effort, Anna has left college to work at the Naval Yards and, thrilled by a cursory glance at women welders, aims to leave the confines of the building to work in the water as a lone female diver repairing ships: an undertaking that proves to be both grueling and fulfilling, and guides Anna to uncovering what happened to her father. With seemingly boundless knowledge, Egan writes Anna from precocious child to fearless adult and permits the reader to contrast Anna’s bright, cramped home life to that of the dark, vast sea during dives. The most transparent of the three main characters, Anna is a protagonist with whom it is easy to empathize, and she is in many ways written to be timeless in her challenges and desires.

Manhattan Beach is a novel bonded with the sea: from an epigraph by Melville (‘meditation and the water are wedded for ever’) to symbols of light, dark, and depth, Egan’s approach to New York is that of sand and water, rather than socialites and skyscrapers. In such a New York, the characters inhabiting Manhattan Beach are in the heart of ‘the melting pot,’ and their experiences, professionally legitimate and otherwise, closely revolve around issues of race and class. While Anna comes from an Irish background, ‘[her] complexion is Italian’ and Dexter, likely Italian and rumored to have changed his name, is throughout the novel considered an outsider in his wife’s life, which comprises country clubs and old money. Egan’s writing often focuses on the experiences of ‘the outsider’ and Manhattan Beach is rich with characters unsure of their place. In her adult years, Anna, who feels disconnected from her family, is emotionally tethered to her fellow divers: men who labor alongside her without diminishing her efforts. In spite of those who limit and discourage her, Anna finds kinship with two men, one of whom is named Marle, an African American who initially, like Anna, keeps his distance from the other divers. Egan writes of Marle and Anna’s situational similarities without lessening their racial and gender differences, and it is an alliance that is easy without over-romanticizing. A working-class companionship is seen too within the lives of Eddie and Dexter, who devote themselves to their associates rather than their families – decisions that lead to tragedies on land and at sea.

It is upon the complexities of relationships that Manhattan Beach builds its foundation. The eventual relationships developed between characters far exceeds a cold morning on Manhattan Beach and it is the evolution of each that lingers at the end of the novel. An author unafraid of change, Egan has patiently developed a novel that feels both long ago and timeless. At the close of Manhattan Beach the reader stands with Anna along a different coast, by her father’s side as an adult, in an ending that is moving if also swift: ‘She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent distant explosion. Without thinking she took her father’s hand. “Here it comes.”’

Cindy Withjack

About Cindy Withjack

Cindy Withjack holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham and is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, where she is writing a novel. Her work has been published in theBurg, From the Fallout Shelter, The Huffington Post, The Journal, Slice Magazine, Litro Magazine, Women are Boring, and Banshee.

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