Jennifer Egan (2017)
Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. Anna observes the uniformed servants, the lavishing of toys on the children, and some secret pact between her father and Dexter Styles.
Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career as a Ziegfield folly, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a night club, she chances to meet Styles, the man she visited with her father before he vanished, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life.
I would like to start by saying that this book took entirely too long for me to finish. I am not sure exactly what it was, but the story felt like it dragged on for the entire month. However, finishing this book means that I read both of my BOTM choices (October) before the end of the year, and that is pretty cool.
Manhattan Beach is told from three different point of views, with a main focus on the character Anna (daughter of Eddie Kerrigan, another POV). It takes place in NYC during the 1930s, in the midst of World War Two. The character Anna is working in the Naval Yard in New York and seeks out becoming one of the only female divers. It seems as if several different story lines are to come together in this book, but I just don’t think that it works well.
The novel starts with Eddie and his young daughter Anna visiting (our other POV) Dexter Styles in pursuit of a business partnership. Fast forward a few years and Anna is a young woman, her father having vanished years ago, and she runs into, and recognizes Dexter Styles, as one of the last “visits” she made with her father before he disappeared. Dexter however does not recognize who Anna really is at first.
Various different things happen to the characters throughout this novel, making it hard to pay attention to how all three of them intersect. The premise was interesting, and I was certainly interested in the setting of the story. I liked the slight mob-ish portions of the story, as well as Anna’s adventures into being a diver, and Eddies experience at sea, but because so much happened to each character individually throughout the book, it was hard to enjoy those pieces, especially that they had little to do with how the three characters were connected.
I just wanted to like this book so much more than I did. Again, I don’t know if I didn’t have enough time to devote to the story (much of it was read very sporadically over a long period of time) or if it was not my preferred writing style but I might be inclined to revisit this book at another time, to give it a 2nd try. It was my first time reading Egan, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect.
Simon and Schuster posted some discussion questions for this book. PLEASE NOTE– Reading these questions may reveal spoilers for the book. So if you have not read Manhattan Beach yet, proceed with caution.
Here are a few I found interesting:
- Why is the thought of what Lydia “might have looked like, had she not been damaged. A beauty. Possibly more than Agnes,” (page 16) so painful to Ed? Why is he unable even to cope with Lydia, much less love her, as Anna and Agnes do?
- How does Anna’s sexual relationship with Leon, during which she thinks things like “I might not be here” and “This might not be me” (page 120), relate to her feeling abandoned by her father? Why does she later invoke her father as “an abstract witness to her virtue” (page 122)?
- Why does Dexter insist on diving with Anna to try to find her father’s corpse? What does this effort represent for him? What do you think he comes to understand?
- Visions of Lydia push Anna to not go through with her abortion. Discuss the connection between Lydia and Anna’s unborn child.
- When Anna takes the train west, there’s a moment when she “bolted upright. She had thought of her father. At last, she understood: This is how he did it” (page 426). What allows her to understand and perhaps reconcile with her father?
Have you read anything by Jennifer Egan? Do you like her writing style? Have you read Manhattan Beach? What did you think? Lets chat in the comments!
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley