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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical fiction

Manhattan Beach

by Jennifer Egan

Quick take

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

Why I love it

Kristin Iversen

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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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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Member thoughts

All (2022)
All (2022)
Love (646)
Like (1003)
Dislike (373)
2130 ratings
  • 30% Love
  • 47% Like
  • 18% Dislike
  • Bloomington, IL

    This story was a bit of a murder mystery with hints of early 20th century gangsters but I also learned a lot about women's status during the war. It also grabbed my interest with the divers' war work.

  • Lemont, IL

    One of the best protagonists I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I have spent my whole life wishing there was a version of Goodfellas with a girl in it, & I've finally found it, only so much better

  • Hayward , CA

    WWII & the NY underworld backdrop Anna's journey(s) of discovery: finding the truth of her father's disappearance, finding her place in a changing world, finding herself & future. She's unforgettable.

  • Chicago, IL

    I LOVED this book! It was so hard to put down because you are immediately drawn to the characters, from Anna and Eddie Kerrigan to gangster Dexter Styles. A truly wonderful work of historical fiction.

  • Bloomington, IL

    Although very unlike A Visit From the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach is exciting, surprising, and provoking. See my full review here:

  • Reston, VA

    This book made me feel like I was living a different taking on World War II a la Pearl Harbor with a focus in New York and the Indian Ocean which I really enjoyed. Gotta love a strong female character

  • Apex, NC

    WW II, the mafia, and women working at men's jobs. Anna is the Navy's only female diver and proud of what she's made of her tough life. But why does the death of gangster Dexter Styles upset her so?

  • Englewood, CO

    Most WWII stories are about war heroes, but to write a great, personal story of a woman working in the naval yards during this time is so satisfying . Not to mention a realistic ending. Unremarkable.

  • Portland, ME

    As the daughter of a (male) Navy diver, I was endlessly interested in the main character's experience as a female diver during the war. I was impatient every time the story followed another character

  • Star, NC

    Jennifer Egan constructed an intriguing character-driven historical novel that was set in New York City during WWII. The scene was developed around strong women, the mob, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

  • Durham , CT

    I could really feel the 1930's while reading. Anna was very likeable. Though a bit shady, Dexter was likeable also. I feel some things weren't fully explained but that adds to its historical aura.

  • Sherman Oaks, CA

    The historical details are amazing & I love the writing, but feel like Dexter, Eddie, & Anna's stories were forced together in this one book when they should have been completely individual tales.

  • Largo, FL

    I really enjoyed this one. Anna's character development is out-of-this-world and very immersive, and the story we follow of her and her family was one I'll not soon forget. On my list of rereads!

  • Edmonds, WA

    Well-researched and thought provoking. New York City—specifically the Brooklyn Naval Yard—is as finely drawn a character as Anna, Eddie, and Dexter Styles. At times tragic, others hopeful.

  • Topsfield, MA

    Mobsters and business deals gone wrong! I loved this book and the WWII landscape it was set against. The protagonist's career aiding in finding out the story behind her MIA father was a twist!

  • Washington , DC

    Jennifer Egan is a fabulous writer who pulls you into her story with beauty prose and detail. Her work is well-researched so that you feel as if you are living the story with the characters.

  • Washington, DC

    This book sucked me into World War 2-era Brooklyn through vivid characters and rich historical details. And I loved being immersed in the experience of diving in the 1940's. Very compelling!

  • Allen Park , MI

    As a big fan of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It focused on different aspects of life at home during WWII that I had never read about. Compelling characters and plots!

  • Cookeville, TN

    This book was so fun to read because it puts you in a very different time in American history. The characterization is astounding as well. You feel like you know the characters personally.

  • Scotch Plains, NJ

    An amazing story that weaves family, crime, and the drama of WWII. I am using it as a book club choice at my local library! And the ending is as powerful as the entire book, a strong plot!

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