Manhattan Beach

During the Great Depression, Eddie Kerrigan took care of his wife and daughters, even if it meant getting involved with the shady gangster Dexter Sykes. But by World War II, Eddie is gone and the women are on their own. Younger daughter Lydia has a disability that keeps her confined and mostly nonverbal, and so it’s up to elder daughter Anna to go to work to support the war effort and her family. After a few weeks of boredom inspecting parts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Anna becomes obsessed with the diving crew that repairs ships. Eventually, she wheedles her way onto a team, overcoming all the resistance to become the first woman diver.

As the months go on, Anna finds herself in the orbit of her father’s former employer. She’s drawn to him and repelled by him, desperate to find out what he knows about her father’s disappearance and terrified to ask.

I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s previous books, so I can’t make any comparisons to those, but I found this to be a straightforwardly enjoyable work of historical fiction with a few minor glitches that kept it from rising to the top of my list of favorites in the genre.

Let’s start with what I loved. The diving! I loved watching Anna go through the training, face the dangers, nearly drown, and get good at it. And it wasn’t just that this was about a woman succeeding in a man’s world. As enjoyable as those kinds of stories can be, they’re not new. What I loved was the Egan got into the details of how diving works. Learning about other jobs is fun, especially when they’re unusual and dangerous.

And I liked Anna as a character most of the time. She’s conflicted in a way that could come across as incoherent, but ended up working for me. She’s young and facing a lot of different pressures, so I can see how she’d be struggling to figure things out. Does she want to be alone or surrounded by friends? Does she want to go to bed with this man or not? How does she feel about going dancing? Who are her real friends? She wavers over these things, but her focus on diving gives her purpose and allows readers to see that she can be strong when she’s made a choice. And I think diving, with all its challenges, allows her to quiet her mind from all the turmoil.

The book is at its best when it focuses on Anna. But there are also long sections about Eddie, and he’s not nearly as compelling. And for a long portion of the book, we’re privy to information about him that Anna doesn’t have. It makes one scene, when Anna supposedly learns the truth, extra intense, but I’m not sure that drama was needed. I’m not sure any of his story was needed, beyond the fact that he disappeared.

But even as I say that, I must admit that part of his story included a survival story of the type that I absolutely adore. And during those chapters, I was riveted. Still, they felt like part of a different book. The fact that this was Anna’s father was meaningless.

So I have mixed feelings about this one. There were parts I enjoyed a lot, but there were too many distractions from that central story.

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14 Responses to Manhattan Beach

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This is about how I felt. There were a lot of good parts but the whole didn’t electrify me. I agree especially about the diving: I really enjoyed both the details of how it was done and the atmosphere she created in the underwater scenes.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Since I loved her previous novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I think my expectations for this one were too high. I also found this one kind of … provincial, in a way that people who live in the NYC area often are.

  3. whatmeread says:

    One thing I think is important in a work of historical fiction is a strong sense of the time and place. I don’t think that was very strong in this novel.

  4. Amy Rea says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Egan’s other books, but haven’t picked this one up because too many people I know who also loved her earlier books didn’t love this one. I’d say check out A Visit from the Goon Squad. That one’s stellar.

  5. Michelle says:

    I was in the same situation as you were when reading this – first book by Egan you have read. I totally agree with you that it was good but not completely great. The diving portions were fantastic though and remain a highlight for me.

    • Teresa says:

      Those parts were definitely good enough to make me willing to read Egan again. And the weak parts weren’t terrible enough to steer me away.

  6. I’ve really liked all her other books so I’ve been hesitant to read this one since I’ve heard mixed things. But since she’s an author I enjoy so much, I will eventually get around to reading this. I like what you had to say about it, it sort of gives me a compass to go by.

  7. I hated Goon Squad so much that I only decided to read Manhattan Beach because Jennifer Egan will be here in Portland next month as part of our Arts and Lectures series. But what a disappointment. The diving was the only part I liked. Eddie’s return was long and unsuspenseful, I thought, but I was most disappointed in the resolution of Dexter’s story, because Egan broke a point-of-view rule that caused me to read one page three times before I realized what she had done and, rather than find it to be a technical marvel, I found it a betrayal of the reader’s trust. And ham-fistedly done, too. No more Egan for me.

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