October 3, 2017 | Scribner
Literary fiction | Historical fiction
Brooklyn in the 1930’s had to have been a tough place. And it was for Eddie Kerrigan as well. Having lost all his luxuries, Eddie has gone to work for his childhood friend, a union boss and a piece in the organized crime puzzle. Playing the go-between, Eddie delivers packages and envelops to legitimate businessmen and gangsters alike.
Often he takes his elder daughter on these errands, allowing them some father-daughter time. When Manhattan Beach opens, Eddie and his 12 year-old daughter Anna are on their way to visit a very important man, one who may hold the key to their survival. Anna’s eyes are opened up to a world of servants, unlimited toys, and private beaches. As she is emboldened to put her bare feet in the winter ocean water, their host sees something in Anna, a steely resoluteness that he envies.
When they leave, Anna understands without being told that her father and Dexter Styles, have made some kind of secret deal, a secret she agrees to keep.
Years later America is at war and Eddie has disappeared. Anna works at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, doing work women are allowed to do because of that war. Using that steely resolve, Anna becomes the first female diver, welding and repairing the ships in the yard. She has become the main breadwinner for her remaining family: her mother, a ex Ziegfield Folly dancer, and her severely disabled sister.
Out on the town with a friend one night, she meets Dexter Styles, the man who may hold the secrets to her father’s life and disappearance, the underworld connections for both mean that may have lead to her father’s murder. Through Dexter, Anna comes to understand a little of her father’s life, understanding the difficulty in sliding between the legitimate and illegitimate worlds.
I seem to say this about every novel I read lately, but I was very excited for this book. Jennifer Egan is imaginative and inventive, and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with an historical novel.
Egan immerses readers in detail. Her research into naval divers during World War II as well as the layers of organized crime in Brooklyn and New York must have consumed her: there is so much detail and reality that you know it’s pretty close to true. She talks about so many things in such offhanded specificity, from the way girls dressed to go out to caring for her invalid sister, making readers never doubt the realism in these particulars.
The protagonist of this story is Anna, and her’s is the main storyline. But, with grace and agility, Egan weaves in the stories of Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles, two men more similar than they realize, and two men who helped form the adult Anna. Although Anna’s story is the anchor, Eddie and Dexter’s full life stories are told as more than background, giving readers an understanding of their motivations.
There is so much reality and realness in Manhattan Beach. Have you ever read a novel and cringed at the dialogue? Egan’s dialogues just fit. Her characters are interesting, and she realizes their conversations would be engaging as well. She doesn’t have them talk down to us, but neither does she make them overly wordy. They talk and discuss and gossip, sounding like real people having everyday (or not so everyday) conversations.
Manhattan Beach reads like the best of novels, interweaving stories and storylines deftly. But there is an element of mystery and suspense. Readers are pulled into the periphery of organized crime, understanding that while there were those that jumped into that life with both feet and never looked back, there were others trying to balance between two worlds, wishing they could live life solidly on legitimate ground.
But Anna is the star of the show, as I said. And her reality seems to hit closest to the bone. She’s tossed into the world as a woman of her times, not fighting for equality for all women, not even really herself. She just wants a chance to do what she knows she’ll be good at, and fights for the chance to dive. Thanks to the war, she gets to choose her own life, something that would not have been possible without WWII.
As I read this, I thought about how difficult it must have been at that time to have a loved one with a disability. As the mother of a child with a disability, this is naturally where my mind heads. But I also realized there’s one reality that seeps through, not matter what year you live in. You do what you must for those you love. In other words, it is what it is.
And it’s the same with Anna. Egan presents her with such authenticity. Anna’s just doing what she needs to do to be who she wants to be. There’s no preachiness in the way Egan gives us Anna, no talk of her seizing liberation and equality, although she gets both through her resourcefulness and skill.
I read this in another review (I think it was in the New York Times), and I agree: the only problem I have with Manhattan Beach is that it didn’t challenge me as a reader. I kind of expected that from Jennifer Egan.
But Manhattan Beach is wonderful storytelling, taking historical fiction to an entirely new level. Although rife with detail, Egan keeps everything moving beautifully, making it hard to put down. She’s an agile and dexterous writer, telling a good story without losing authenticity and detail.
So yes, yes, and yes to Manhattan Beach. It’s what all historical fiction should strive to become.
****Thank you to Scribner for giving me an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!