Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. One critic commented on that book’s “time-hopping narrative, unorthodox format, and motley cast of characters.” Her fifth book, Manhattan Beach, a bestselling historical novel, is a more straightforward tale. Despite the popularity of the earlier book and the prizes it won, I found it far less approachable than Manhattan Beach. Give me a good World War II story any day, and I’m likely to enjoy it. And that’s certainly the case with Manhattan Beach.
Finely drawn characters and a vivid setting
The action in Manhattan Beach largely takes place in 1942 and 1943, just as the tide of events in World War II was turning in favor of the Allies. Flashbacks take us back to the mid-1930s, and later chapters are set several years after the war. The narrative centers around three characters: Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who finds work as one of the first female Navy divers; her father Eddie, a former stockbroker who lost a fortune in the Crash; and Dexter Styles. Styles, a gangster, employs Eddie as a bagman, unbeknownst to Anna. Every one of these three principal figures is finely drawn, and both the physical location on the Brooklyn waterfront and the uneasy mood of the times come through vividly. Egan is a highly skilled writer.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017) 449 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
This bestselling historical novel is a winner
The plot of Manhattan Beach is uncomplicated. In 1937, without warning, Eddie disappeared, and Anna eventually becomes convinced that he was killed by the Syndicate. She works her way into a job diving for the Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, wondering all the while what happened to her father. The lives of the three become intricately enmeshed once Anna and Dexter begin an affair. She turns to him for an explanation of her father’s disappearance. We should not be shocked to learn there are surprises in store for her.
For further reading
This is one of The 20 best books of 2018 reviewed here.
My posts 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up) and The 10 best novels about World War II (plus 19 runners-up) may also interest you.
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