Jennifer Egan is back with a sprawling and beautiful new novel, Manhattan Beach. I’m a fan – her famous Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad is, I think, one of the best in the interconnected short story genre but I also very much enjoyed The Keep. I don’t know what I expected with Manhattan Beach, but what I experienced was almost continual surprise at how deep and well researched it was. I cannot imagine how long it took to write, but the other day when I was writing I couldn’t remember a character’s name and instead of looking back in the text I just renamed her Kate and decided to worry about it later. So… what I am saying is that Jennifer Egan is not quite on my level vis-a-vis laziness.
Manhattan Beach (the Brooklyn one, not the Southern California one – my first surprise) takes place beginning in the Great Depression and we meet Anna Kerrigan who is a child accompanying her father to his business meetings. It is never quite clear what it is that her father does, but he is something of a connector or messenger that is Mafia-adjacent. We observe these interactions through her twelve-year-old lens, which is so brilliant and original, and specifically a partnership with a mob boss called Dexter Styles.
We skip ahead to wartime where Anna is working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and supporting her mother and disabled sister because her father has disappeared. She has all kinds of experiences she would not normally have been allowed but for the war, including becoming the first female diver repairing ships under water. This whole storyline is crazy pants, and awesome, and based on a real woman. She also makes friends and starts to socialize, once again coming into the orbit of Dexter Styles, who she hides her identity from in order to try to get information about her father and why he may have vanished. The story is so complex and sprawling but I’ll stop there, it is well worth the journey for you.
The sense of place in this novel is perfect, the dialogue feels authentic and I just loved every page. I don’t know why I took so long to pick this one up, but I think it felt like more work than I was up to over the holidays but don’t let the ‘historical novel’ title fool you, this is just a really great story.
Manhattan Beach – Grade A