Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)
“We’re going to see the sea.”
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 family. She is mesmerized by the seat 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.
This book washed over me slowly – my knowledge of Jennifer Egan was limited to her Pulitzer prize winning work about the gritty world of a record company executive. Manhattan Beach is entirely different in its tone and aesthetic – it begins unassumingly and steadily transports you into Anna’s world.
In hindsight, I loved Anna so much as a character that I think I was less inclined to enjoy chapters that focused on anyone else. Many did in the first 100 pages, so perhaps that’s why I found the beginning slow-going. But once Egan sucked me in, I was hooked.
I thoroughly loved her choice to make Anna a female diver. Not only is it so explicitly not a career women were expected to, or allowed to, participate in, it is physically dangerous. Extremely dangerous. Diving equipment in the 1940s weighed 200 pounds – if you were to fall in your suit without your air properly connected, it would mean sinking to the bottom of the ocean with no hope of floating back up. If you rise too quickly to the surface, you can cause your brain and body permanent harm.
The danger inherently involved in Anna’s career is mirrored in that found in the life of a gangster like her father or Dexter Styles. High risk, high reward. I enjoyed both characters when their stories came into contact with Anna’s. I lost interest when she wasn’t involved.
There are a few scenes in this novel that are completely breathtaking – the kind of scenes you can easily imagine in your mind’s eye and they have stayed with me for long after I closed this book.
If you’re interested in well-written historical fiction with a strong female protagonist, I’d recommend Manhattan Beach; find it here on Amazon or at your local independent bookstore.