Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Diving in

Cover imageThere will be lots of fans standing ready for this one, I’m sure. It’s been seven years since the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad which bagged both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Manhattan Beach is very different, not least because it’s Egan’s first historical novel. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him.

Anna adores Eddie who takes his bright young daughter with him to business meetings. The stock market crash has driven him to the fringes of gangsterism, working as a bagman for the childhood friend he saved from drowning. Eddie steers a careful course, wary of risk but needing to support the wife he adores and their severely disabled daughter a little younger than Anna. One day, Eddie takes Anna to Manhattan Beach where they meet Dexter Styles and his family. This is the beginning of a business relationship which will last until Eddie disappears, having made sure his family are looked after. Years later, Anna is working in the Naval Yard checking parts for warships. Summoning all her grit and determination she finds her way onto the diving programme essential to ship maintenance, defeating its leader’s sneering prejudice. When she spots Styles at one of his nightclubs, she becomes determined to find out what happened to Eddie but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for.

Egan’s novel explores the history of mid-twentieth century America through the lens of Anna’s experience. She’s a smart, strong character, taught to interpret the world by her father and wary of what she might give away. She’s different from the women around her: Nell makes her way through sex and what it buys her; Rose is bringing up a child, working while her husband is at war but Anna uses her intelligence and determination to break into a staunchly masculine sphere, earning respect but not without a fight. Styles’ world contrasts with the hard graft of the shipyards, moneyed and comfortable but hanging by a thread of influence. Egan has clearly done a great deal of research for this novel, all framed within an engrossing story replete with some very smart writing: ‘the man raised in him a welt of provocation whose itch he could barely withstand’; ‘No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone’. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away. I’ll be interested to see what other Egan fans make of it.

16 thoughts on “Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Diving in

  1. Café Society

    I didn’t get in well with Egan’s previous book, but I think that was more to do with where I was at the time rather than the novel itself. I was all,set to give this one a go until I reached your last comments, now I think I’ll wait and see what others think as well.

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  2. Naomi

    Anna getting into the diving programme would be interesting to read about. Is there much about that in the novel?
    I’m still behind on Egan as I still haven’t read Goon Squad!

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  3. Grab the Lapels

    I haven’t read any of Egan’s books. The Good Squad was so I big that I was like, “never mind, everyone else will read this for me.” 😀 Also, I’m not a big fan of historical novels. I have yet to figure out why…although I think it has something to do with always seeing the cracks that allow modernism to seep in and ruin the historical setting.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Funnily enough, I’m not a fan either but Egan’s name was the lure for me, and I know what you mean about those big, over-hyped titles. I do find that anachronisms get under my skin more these days, probably a sign of getting older!

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        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          Given that this one’s in hardback, I’d say The Observations unless you’d prefer a wonderfully unreliable narrator in which case I’d suggest Gillespie and I. Not much help, I’m afraid but I’m very fond of all of them.

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  4. Elena

    Sounds like the perfect reading for the next time I crave Northamerican literature. Also, confession time: I haven’t read A Visit from the Goon Squad.

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  5. buriedinprint

    Did you read The Keep? There’s this thing that happens in that one, which really bent a lot of readers the wrong way. And I can’t help but wonder if, given your veiled comments, that she’s done something like that in her latest novel too. This sharp and unexpected turn which doesn’t seem to fit at all, but kinda does. I’m not a big fan (I’ve only read Goon Squad and The Keep) but I’m interested in this one – loosely, not passionately.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I haven’t but that’s interesting. Hard to talk about the thing I found difficult as it’s plot related but it jarred for me, not a sharp turn but one that strained belief.

      Reply

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