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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical fiction

Manhattan Beach

by Jennifer Egan
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Quick take

A sweeping narrative, rich in historical detail, brimming with finely drawn characters.


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, 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.

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Why I love it

As any fan of Jennifer Egan knows, the only thing to expect from her work is the unexpected. After all, Egan’s bestseller, A Visit from the Goon Squad, had an entire chapter written in PowerPoint. So perhaps the most surprising aspect of Egan’s latest is how resolutely classic a novel it is. Manhattan Beach fully embraces and delivers a sweeping narrative, rich in historical detail, and brimming with finely drawn characters, whose struggles feel as intimately a part of you as your own.

Prepare to plunge feet-first into 1930s Brooklyn, as you meet 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, who accompanies her father, Eddie, on a clandestine trip to the Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles, a powerful man with underworld connections only partially obfuscated by the wealthy family into which he married. Each of these characters will face battles between their interior and exterior lives that threaten to submerge them for good.

For Eddie, the struggle revolves around his desire to provide for his family—besides Anna, he and his wife have another, severely disabled daughter—while also getting out from under the thumb of his employer, a corrupt Irish union boss, whose life Eddie once saved.

For Dexter, who navigates widely disparate spheres of influence with seeming ease, the troubles begin when he tries to more fully enter the legitimate business world; it’s only then he realizes how many people don’t want him to rise above his station.

For Anna, problems emerge after the sudden, unexplained disappearance of her father, continue as she embarks on a career as the rare female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and only get more complicated as her path crosses once again with that of Dexter'”the one man who might know where her father went.

If the plot sounds as vast as the oceans themselves, well, it is. But Egan masterfully uses the unknowable nature of the watery depths to convey the way her characters navigate through and sometimes elude the forces of fate. Manhattan Beach is a charged reminder of the ways in which we’re all connected, all made up of the same watery essence. And just as surely as the current brings us back into the past, so too does it bear us to our future; it’s all one, continuous space, a place to live, to die, and to be reborn.

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