Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

In her latest work, Egan surprises with historical fiction

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer EganCover art courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Six years ago, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, Jennifer Egan, wowed readers with A Visit From the Goon Squad, a radical novel brimming with inventiveness. Egan’s new work, Manhattan Beach,  is equally as shocking, albeit, in a stunningly different—yet rewarding, way.

A traditional, historical novel, Manhattan Beach’s surprise lies in its beautiful simplicity. Set mainly in Brooklyn during World War II, the sweeping page-turner focuses on Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who works at the local Naval Yard. Anna’s life has not been easy. By her 19th birthday, her charismatic father, Eddie, had vanished suddenly and she was left to provide for her family, including her severely disabled sister. Still, fearless Anna, inspired by her job repairing ships, desperately wants to break into the male-only, death-defying world of deep-sea diving. This task is not simple.

As Anna faces obstacles on her quest to become the first female civilian diver, Egan introduces additional drama in the form of Dexter Styles, a dark, magnetic underworld figure. Anna is determined to solve her father’s mysterious crime and Styles, who owns nightclubs, just might be linked to Eddie’s disappearance.

Though the rich plot and complex characters make Manhattan Beach an immensely satisfying read, it is Egan’s poetic prose (“The strange, violent, beautiful sea. … It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn over a mystery”) that elevates the novel to a work of art. Well-known for her meticulous research, Egan also displays her talent for detail, deftly capturing various 1940s American subcultures including organized crime, merchant mariners and high society. Pages are peppered with Flossie Flirt dolls, Ellery Queen and “Mae West” life jackets.

Ultimately, Manhattan Beach, long-listed for the National Book Award, is an intelligent tale of secrets, loss, family and war, as well as an exquisite tribute to New York City and its seaport. Yes, it is a departure from Egan’s last book. And yes, in one or two instances, the pace slows. But truly, there is nothing not to love about this extraordinarily good, old-fashioned novel.

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Allison Fabian Derfner
Allison Fabian Derfner is a freelance writer and editor who served most recently as Features Director at Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan. Allison lives with her family in New York City