Manhattan Beach

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 03 Oct 2017

Member Reviews

I love fiction where I learn something new. Birdsong was one such, where I learned about miners being used to create tunnels for the troops in occupied France. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is another. 

Anna adores her father Eddie and accompanies him when he goes to visit various people ‘for the union,’ his job. Times are tough in depression era New York. Many people have lost their jobs. Eddie has Anna, an extremely disabled younger daughter, and an ex-showgirl wife to support and does whatever he can to make sure there is food on the table. 

Years later America has joined the second world war and Anna works in a munitions factory at the docs, earning some money to support her mother and sister. She harbours a desire to be a diver, to go down into the dark, greasy waters around the navy piers and help to repair the ships that have returned there between sorties. She believes her father, who disappeared years earlier, will one day return, but when she has an ill-judged affair with an older gangster cum club owner, she discovers that her father may be closer than she knows.

I loved this book. I had no idea that New York was so nervous of being hit by the Germans, always believing that they thought the war was something that happened ‘over there.’ I loved the attention to detail Egan provides. Her research was obviously extensive, but she doesn’t ram stuff into the story to show you she knows it. Instead, each detail enriches the sense of time and place in which the story takes place. There are some authors I know who would do well to take a leaf out of Ms Egan’s book.

The characters flew off the page, so perfectly were they described. I adored Anna, a true feminist who wouldn’t recognise that word. She did whatever it took to survive and thrive during these difficult times. I felt great empathy with her, and with her father. 

Dexter Styles, the gangster, was brilliantly drawn. I’d quite like him to have a book of his own as there was such complexity in his character and story.

There is so much more I’d like to say, but I don’t want to give away any of the plot. This is a truly remarkable book and I am grateful to the publisher who gave me a copy of the book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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One of those rare books that you do not want to come to an end.  A future classic, great American novel. The characters are so well crafted and feel so dimensional, that one cares about them all.  It is a coming of age novel that takes place during early to mid-20th century in Brooklyn, extra wonderful because the main character is female. The writing is gorgeous without hitting you over the head with it.  What I mean is that the story thrusts you forward, even while you are aware of being brought along by a remarkably gifted writer.
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The concept of this book was original, seamlessly weaving the lives of multiple characters and the effects of their actions in a beautiful story. Egan captures the magic in an era of conflict, highlighting the way people bond and survive through hardship.
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This book isn’t what I was expecting at all.  I felt like it was all over the place and so much that didn’t connect.  Despite that, there are zero regrets for reading it.
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Anna and her father have a special relationship. When he turns up missing she finds war-time ways to fill the void left by him. What ensues is a poetic journey for many characters, with the climax being a woman who has found what she needed.
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"Manhattan Beach" is a masterpiece.  The book begins in Brooklyn during the Great Depression where we are introduced to Anna Kerrigan.  Anna's father, Eddie, is struggling to keep his family afloat which includes his wife and another daughter, who is seriously ill with a disease that will never improve.  Enter Dexter Styles, a character that will transform all of their lives.
Interwoven beautifully into the plot is Anna's success in becoming the first female diver to serve the US during World War II.
Egan's writing is beautiful, allowing the reader to not only visualize the scenes  but to make you feel that you are diving alongside Anna.   It's a mesmerizing tale to the very end!
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I didn't exactly love Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad but I was still intrigued enough by the plot blurb for Manhattan Beach and this woman working as a diver at the Navy Yard to give her another shot.  While the prose is definitely "beautiful" and the time period obviously well-researched, I never connected with the majority of these characters.  It's difficult to care much about what's going on in the story when every character feels like a rather dull stranger or their actions come straight out of a "Plot Points 101" pamphlet instead of having the feel of a natural progression of the character's arc and story.  The book follows several different characters during several points in time, but the primary protagonist is Anna, which was great because as this female diver, I was most interested in her.  However, even the diving aspect of this book, which seemed to be a major story aspect (I certainly thought it was from the blurb), is actually fairly minor when compared to the rest of the story.  We spend more time with the merchant marines than actually diving with Anna or reading about her work.  Most of the diving is simply long descriptions of the weight of the diving suit itself.
When I finally reached the last chapter, I was thrilled for it to finally be over.  I just didn't see the point of this story and felt the publisher was selling me a completely different bill of goods than what I actually received.  I want to be able to connect with characters, root for them, and have some sense of satisfaction by that final chapter.  This book fulfilled none of those vital points for me.
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NetGalley for the win! Thanks to the author and publisher for an advanced copy of this book. 

***

I didn't know much about this book when I requested a copy, but-- it was Jennifer Egan, so of course I was in. While I found the book very different from her other works, that wasn't a dealbreaker. I would read Ms. Egan's shopping list and probably not be disappointed. 

I always appreciate when a book can take me to new worlds - the New York docks during WWI, a merchant marine vessel off the coast of Madagascar, not to mention a woman breaking in to a "man's field". FWIW, Anna Kerrigan makes my rather short list of "badass females" for her time and era. Recommended, but don't expect a fast read.
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I loved this novel. It is a sweeping story in which the protagonist lives in some ways a very simple life. In others, there is intrigue, interest and more excitement. What a joy.
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Not. at all what I,expected, this book was a pleasant surprise.  Egan has done her research and created a detailed, dark story of the criminal underworld in New York city and the transformative effect of WWII.  What does one do to survive.?  The Narrative unfolds using three different voices, adding to the breadth of the story.  
Many of the twists and turns in the plot were unexpected, a few predictable.  Egan manages to give us a story that begins to explore the social transformation in the United States that accompanied, or was caused by World War II.  
Highly recommended.
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As the Second World War rages and the American Navy is desperate to produce and repair ships, Anna Kerrigan gets the opportunity to become a diver in the shipyards of New York. Anna is alone in the world after her father disappeared five years before she lived with her mother and disabled sister but when her sister dies her mother returns to the MidWest. She begins an affair with a married man, a man with links to crime and who may know the truth about her father, but finding out the truth is no consolation.

This is one of the best books I have read all year. Not having read Egan's previously lauded novel I was a little sceptical about the hype but within minutes I was hooked. Anna is a complex character, ambivalent about sex and wanting to have equality, yet launching into a passionate affair with a man who may have killed her father. The setting in the early 1940s is imagined vividly but without too much obvious scene-setting and the longer descriptive parts are excellent - the claustrophobic nature of diving, the loss at sea. Interesting sub-characters appear and disappear and even the ending is not as neat as some authors might make it.
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I have a love/hate relationship with Egan's work. This is the fourth book by her I have read and by far my favorite. A Visit from the Goon Squad completely missed the mark for me, but this one hit the bullseye. I loved the setting, it feels as if Egan researched the Great Depression thoroughly in order to offer a realistic picture of life during that time. I also loved the characters she created and how they wove the plot together. All-in-all, a very satisfying read.
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I loved A Visit From the Goon Squad. It is definitely one of my favorite books of all time. Therefore, when I found out and started to see Manhattan Beach popping up everywhere, I had to get my hands on it. It took me quite a while to read it and I do believe that it is beautifully written. However, you cannot compare it to A Visit From the Goon Squad as it isn’t a comparable book. I kind of like that about Jennifer Egan though. She did something different and I think expecting the same thing twice is boring and as a creative person I’m sure you need to change. With that said I just couldn’t get into all the storylines in this book. I wish it focused only from Anna’s perspective. It’s odd I felt that way because usually I love having lots of voices present. With this book though, I was only really interested in Anna’s voice and I felt I got somewhat disconnected from the others. I learned some new things and you can tell the amount of effort that probably went into research for this book from the author. I liked this book and I think there is a lot going for it. I just didn’t love it though the way I thought I would.
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There's a lot of plot here but nothing's happening.  The story skips around from life during WWII, women working on the waterfront, disability, gangsters, etc. Unfortunately, none of this was written in a way that interested me.  This book was just not for me and I abandoned it. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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Andrew Smith's review Nov 15, 2017  ·  edit
really liked it
bookshelves: netgalley 

This book tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, born into an Irish family in Brooklyn shortly before the Great Depression. It’s the story of her family too – sister Lydia, mother Agnes and father Eddie – but these other family members flit in and out of the narrative whilst Anna is always present, even when the focus isn't directly upon her. 

When Eddie is forced to find a new way of feeding his family – the Depression having seen off his career as a stockbroker – he finds himself becoming a ‘bag man’, delivering mysterious parcels on behalf of a corrupt union official. Eddie often takes Anna with him on these deliveries and the two develop a close bond. She is devoted to her severely disabled sister too, something Eddie finds hard to replicate. Try as he might, he can't help but think what life would have been like had Lydia not been so affected. And through this early part of the book we also learn that Agnes chose to give up her career as a dancer to look after Lydia full-time. Consequently money is very tight. Then things change. We witness Eddie meeting with a local mobster at his Manhattan Beach home. It seems that Eddie might be starting a new job working with him and that this may herald an improvement in their financial state. But very soon Eddie disappears. We're not to learn the detail of his fate for some time. 

The first half of the book is quite slow as the narrative develops. First we watch a more grown up Anna working at the shipyard. The nation is at war and she's stuck in a menial job with a group of married women she has little affinity with. But she’s feisty and determined and it isn't long before she sets her sights on becoming a diver. Then we start to learn more about Dexter Styles, the mobster we briefly met earlier. We know Anna and he have met as they had a brief conversation when she attended her father’s meeting with him some years back. Will they meet up again and did he have anything to do with Eddie’s disappearance?

In the second-half the the pace picks up. The timeframe is ever changing as we jump back and forth to monitor current developments and, at last, start to discover what became of Eddie. There are one or two occurrences that challenged my imagination but by and large I found myself launched into a gripping tale that had me turning pages at ever increasing speed. 

This book works on a number of levels: as mystery it held me in nervous suspense from the half way point right through to the end; as a commentary on how women and people of colour were treated in mid-century America I found it be be an enlightening and somewhat disturbing account; as a work of literary historical fiction it contained passages of beautiful prose and descriptions of events that had me riveted to the page. But does it all add up to the sum of its parts? For me, not quite. I liked the character development and I felt invested in the fate of all the family members, but the constant changes in time and focus sometimes left me confused and frustrated. Looking back on it, I can see how the structure helped maintain a sense of suspense and it is an interesting way to absorb a tale – but there were times when I just craved a more straightforward approach the unfolding of the plot. 

There's lot to enjoy here and I'm sure others will find joy in elements I found frustrating. But there's no doubt in my mind that Jennifer Egan is a talented writer and I, for one, will be seeking out more of her work.
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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 special thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Egan's latest offering takes place in America during the Depression.  Twelve-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who she perceives to be important.  Anna can't help but notice the lavish house equipped with servants, toys for the children, and the pact between Styles and her father.  

Years later the country is at war, Anna's father has disappeared, and she has to support her mother and disabled sister with work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Because of the war, women are allowed to work and perform jobs that were traditionally jobs for men.  She becomes the first female diver—an incredibly dangerous occupation—repairing naval ships.  Anna meets Dexter Styles at a nightclub and realizes that he is the man she visited with her father before his disappearance.  Styles has ties to the mob and Anna begins to understand the complexity of her father's life.     

The first section is smart, sharp, and brilliantly executed.  Egan's writing is solid, exactly what you would expect.  Then the novel makes one of many jumps in time and the story becomes scattered.  There is a complete lack of harmony and the reader is left with a rambling narrative that is a mash-up of three stories.  Hinging on boring at times, I didn't connect with the characters, or the plot, and this is disappointing because Egan has obviously done her homework.
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This felt a bit more driven by characters than plot but it was interesting the way all of their stories were woven together. She could have built more suspense by holding back some of the story until later but that doesn't seem to have been an important factor. I really liked this. I cared about the characters and she put them in an interesting point in history.

This review is in exchange for a free e-galley from netgalley.com.
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There was so much I enjoyed about Manhattan Beach and a few things I wished were different 
Pros:
Wartime NYC - the time and place were told beautifully 
The Mafia - who doesn’t love a mobster, just wish there was more of that story
Women entering the workforce  - girl power!
One great love scene  (I’m not a huge fan of sex scenes but this one was written perfectly, and I appreciate that there was only one) 
Cons
Merchant Marines- every scene with Eddie I wanted to cut out from the story... just plain boring. 
Diving -  in the beginning it was interesting but Egan went too far with describing everything making that story less about how a woman can do anything to a lesson in old school diving which I found boring, and there was a lot of it. 

The pros outweigh the cons and I did enjoy this one,  especially the first half of the book.  I would recommend it to friends who enjoy historical fiction and who don’t mind a slow moving book.
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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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