I stayed awake nights to read this. I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good. I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough. Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor.
Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.
Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles. A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.
One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort. Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface. As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.
Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing. Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
Vickie’s rating: 5 stars