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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

BOTTOM LINE: I enjoyed the novel for its historical perspective, but this appears to be yet another book I enjoyed that others are not able to finish.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 3 October 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.

‎Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world. It is a magnificent novel by the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the great writers of our time.”

My Thoughts: Manhattan Beach is a tale of two stories. On one side, there is Anna’s work life and struggles to find her role in the wartime economy. On the other side, there is Anna’s private life with her missing father and handicapped sister. Even though the two stories barely coincide, except for one key scene towards the end that sets the finale into motion, both are interesting from the glimpses into wartime New York they provide.

Manhattan Beach is by no means an action-filled story. In fact, the biggest complaint about the novel from others is that it moves slowly. To me, it is a character-driven story, and the slow pacing works as Ms. Egan affords readers the opportunity to intimately understand Anna, her motivations, her passions, and her schedule. At the same time, it allows readers to learn about wartime New York and what women experienced as they went to work in roles previously held by men. We see how the gangsters transitioned from the Prohibition era to the wartime, how things changed for everyone in any role, and watch as society evolves.

This historical aspect of the story is by far its strongest one. Particularly interesting was Anna’s struggles to become a deep-sea diver. History books and wartime anecdotes would have you believe that industries, particularly those involving manual labor, welcomed women with open arms to fill the voids left by the men going overseas to fight. Ms. Egan shows that this is not true. The hatred Anna faces as well as the scorn, doubt, and general prejudice she experiences just to be able to put on the diving suit is disturbing. Yet, on some levels, the misogyny surrounding her decision to dive is not surprising in the least. While it is nice to think that Rosie the Riveter, and the women who answered the call of that advertisement, faced no issues, we just have to look to today’s society to realize the likelihood of that having actually happened is nil. Anna’s story in that regard is just one more in a long line of gender bias and prejudice women continue to experience today.

The second part of Anna’s story, that of her personal life, also provides historical context that educates and intrigues. As with the idealized impression of women in blue-collar manual labor roles, I never thought that the idea of a single woman living alone in the 1940s was scandalous behavior. After all, there have been women-only boarding houses in existence for decades by this point in history. In my mind, the same would seem to hold true with going out without a chaperone. However, Anna’s experiences burst this idyllic bubble of mine just as it did with Rosie the Riveter. Yet, while society may still see women as fragile and in need of protection, Anna’s story shows how the war slowly changes this attitude. Ms. Egan, through Anna, provides a clearer picture of just what it meant to be an unmarried woman during World War II.

Even though the story revolves around Anna, Ms. Egan uses multiple viewpoints to round out her story. These character point-of-views fill in the gaps that Anna will never learn and help answer mysteries to which Anna will never obtain the answers. While Ms. Egan could have told the story strictly through Anna’s eyes, the multiple perspectives afford the reader the opportunity to garner the whole truth, particularly around Anna’s missing father, while allowing Anna to remain ignorant of the truth, something that feels essential to her character. In essence, they leave readers with no unanswered questions and better insight to what was occurring behind Anna’s back while remaining true to all of the characters and the story.

While I enjoyed reading Manhattan Beach, finding it intriguing and educational, I can see why others are struggling to finish it. It is not a complicated plot, and there is very little action. Without the historical context, it would indeed be boring; if the history doesn’t interest you, then it is boring. Nothing is much of a surprise, and while we get to know Anna very well, she does not develop much as a character. For me, the history and the mystery of the father’s disappearance, no matter how predictable, were enough to overshadow the predictability and to pique my interest. Whether it will be enough for you is up to your individual tastes in stories.

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