Jennifer Egan can always be expected to impress her readers with her dazzling prose. Renowned for her creative experimentation with genre and form, Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” a book which is almost a novel, almost a short-story collection.
“Manhattan Beach” is Egan’s first novel since her success with “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” Readers and critics eagerly awaited the novel’s release in 2017, expecting another unique tour de force from the acclaimed author. “Manhattan Beach,” however, is not quite as experimental as Egan’s other works, at least not in form and structure. It follows a familiar plot structure, without any extreme genre play, but weaves together a vast array of subjects.
“Manhattan Beach” has something for everyone: World War II, gangsters, New York’s first female diver, a charming younger sister with tragic disabilities, father-daughter relationships, romance and more. The novel begins a few years before the war, with young Anna Kerrigan accompanying her father to a mysterious man’s house. He tells her to be good, that he is relying on her, but gives her little else to go off of. This cryptic scene goes on to ground the rest of the novel and everything ties back to this moment.
Egan takes us ahead to the height of the war. Anna’s father has disappeared, and she works for the Navy Yard to support her mother and disabled sister. Anna develops a dream of becoming a diver and ambitiously does so. Meanwhile, she finds her life becoming intertwined with that of Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner and the gangster who may be responsible for her father’s disappearance.
Throughout the novel, we are shown viewpoints from Anna’s father, including flashbacks giving clues about his disappearance. We are given glimpses into Styles’ life as well, and his own interdependent relationship with his daughter. Family dynamics, especially between father and daughter, are at the core of this novel.
There is a lot going on in this novel, and few authors would be able to tie all these elements together as neatly as Egan does. Her skillful language invokes a magical quality, keeping her readers engaged. At times, though, the novel seems too busy and forced. Certain plot elements seem unnecessary and boring. The structure is as choppy as the time period the novel situates itself in.
For instance, there is the romantic relationship that, frankly, no one wanted. It seems to have been included simply for the story to have an ending. Rather than focusing on Anna’s attraction to a married man nearly thirty years her senior, the story could have expanded on Anna’s diving experiences or her run-ins with gangsters. Even better, the story could have spent more time building up the personalities and ambitions of the secondary female characters. Anna is really the only developed female character, and the other women appear quite shallow in comparison.
Egan’s skill for writing redeems her though. Every sentence stands beautifully and paragraphs come together with a harmony that is not found easily. She pulls a confusing and discordant plot into something beautiful and enthralling, offering a fresh perspective on life during World War II and struggles of patriotism. Just prepare for the book to meander through some strange side plots, which may or may not have an influence on the book’s overarching narrative, and which, ultimately, isn’t that clear to begin with.