I finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.
Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.
Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.
In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.
And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.