Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Anna watched the sea. There was a feeling she had, standing at its edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all the water should suddenly vanish? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into the storm drain.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is a captivating story with all the atmosphere of a noir film set in Brooklyn during the 1930s and beyond. The story orbits three different narratives: Anna, the tough, courageous young daughter of a wayward lackey who ultimately becomes the first female diver to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard; Anna’s father Eddie Kerrigan as he comes to terms with his other daughter’s debilitating illness and tries to find his place within the organized crime syndicates of New York; and Dexter Styles, a no-nonsense gangster who grapples with the toll his profession takes on his life.

Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one. And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper—deeper still—until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom.

Anna spends her early years tucked under her father’s wing as he completes various odd jobs for his former union head following the dissolution of the shipping industry at the beginning of The Great Depression. Growing tired of this work and in need of funds to purchase equipment that will improve the life of his other daughter, Lydia, who suffers from a serious, crippling disease, Eddie seeks out the help of Dexter Styles. In his usual manner, Styles requires these initial meets to include the attendee’s family, but ashamed of Lydia, Eddie excuses her and his wife bringing along only Anna. She can sense this meeting is the start of something very important and the image of her father and Styles on the beach near the Styles’ mansion is forever burned into her memory. It is this initial scene that sets the foundation for the remainder of the novel and the various and surprising ways our three narratives intertwine.

She could feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips; this came so naturally that she could only think that other people didn’t really try. They always looked, which was as useless when assembling things as studying a picture by touching it.

Years later, Anna is working as a parts inspector for the Brooklyn Naval Yard—forced into the role of breadwinner following her father’s sudden disappearance. Itching to escape the monotony of this tedious job, Anna is one day memorized by the sight of a diver dressing to plunge into the icy depths of the ocean surrounding the Naval Yard. It is in that moment she realizes where her desires lay, having always been mechanically inclined, she sets out to become the first female deep sea diver and boat repair person. However, in the 1940s she is met with an abhorrent amount of prejudice and gender inequality. Ruthless and unwavering, Anna pushes against the boundaries of life, determined to make her dream a reality.

Her photograph was printed in the Brooklyn Eagle, LADY DIVER SHOWS NORMANDIE SALVAGERS BROOKLYN STYLE, the headline read. Anna was smiling in the picture, hatless in her jumpsuit, the wind blowing her hair from clips Within a day of it appearance, the image seemed an artifact from long ago. She kept it beside her bed and looked at it every night before going to sleep. That is the happiest I will ever be, she told herself. Yet she could enjoy that happiness one more day—like waking from a dream of bliss and being allowed, briefly, to resume it.

Meanwhile, still tormented by the loss of her father—her companion—Anna begins to search for answers, trudging up a memory that niggles in that back of her mind: Styles and her father together on the beach. In an underground dance club, Anna is reunited with Styles—though he does not recognize this young women before him—and together they embark on a journey through which each find what they are looking for, as heartbreaking as it may be.

Masterfully executed, the history of 1930s New York is brought back to life through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. Brooding yet exciting, illusory yet grounded, the story of Anna, Eddie and Dexter will transport you to the sandy, briny shore of the Port of New York and all the history therein.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Scribner Books and Netgalley

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