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BookBrowse Reviews Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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Manhattan Beach

by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan X
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Jennifer Egan's first historical novel has a wealth of detail about organized crime, naval operations and the role of women of New York during World War II.

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, has turned her writer's eye toward historical fiction with Manhattan Beach, primarily set in New York during World War II.

The story concerns Anna Kerrigan, daughter of Eddie, an Irish bagman receiving and delivering bribes for a corrupt union official. Eddie has reluctantly embraced the underworld in order to provide for his wife Agnes, and their daughters Anna and Lydia, who is crippled. The novel opens with Anna, then aged 12, accompanying her father to visit nightclub owner Dexter Styles at his home on Manhattan Beach. Egan then moves forward several years and the family situation is much changed. Anna has left college and is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard (see Beyond the Book), aspiring to be a diver who repairs ships, and Eddie has disappeared. When the adult Anna crosses paths with Dexter Styles, the chance to find out what happened to her father is too much to resist — but her entanglement with Styles will have far-reaching consequences for them both.

Rich in period detail and information, Manhattan Beach explores themes of personal responsibility, family, social structures and public service. Anna is a ground-breaker, physically strong and emotionally resilient, intent on her dream. Other women in the novel are less developed and border on stereotypes. Anna's mother, dutiful Agnes, has given up a dancing career with the Ziegfeld Follies, a Broadway theater company, to care for Lydia, a sharp contrast to Dexter's society wife and her siblings. There are Anna's friends – Rose, traditional and respectable but dull; very different from Nell, who claims to be happy as a mistress to a married man she does not even seem to like. Only Anna's aunt, Brianne, might surprise the reader in her evolution and contribution to Anna's story.

Egan's male characters are more varied and complex – violent yet capable of great moments of tenderness. Crime is an important part of Manhattan Beach, and there are fascinating parallels between the legitimate business world embodied by Dexter Styles' banker father-in-law, and Styles' underworld boss, a man known only as Mr Q. Both Dexter and Anna's father, Eddie, struggle with the conflict between the private benefits they experience from their criminal enterprises and a desire to contribute to the war effort that is going on around them. As younger men go off to fight and women join the workforce at home, Dexter and Eddie's attempts to do the right thing take them in very different directions.

At times the depth of research assembled in Manhattan Beach threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Dense passages devoted to naval maneuvers, war action and diving technique and safety, although interesting and beautifully written, slow the action. Anna's character and story, however, are compelling and thought-provoking. Egan is highly successful at bringing her to life and her choices and decisions keep the pages turning.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2017, and has been updated for the June 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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