Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

During World War II, New York Harbor played a major role in the war effort. According to the publication of the New York Historical Society, more than three million men shipped out from New York Harbor. At the war’s peak, 70,000 people were employed, including many women. New York Harbor became the largest shipbuilding facility in the country.

Egan uses this history as a backdrop for her book, Manhattan Beach. The story weaves together the lives of three people: Anna Kerrigan, a small parts ship machinist who becomes the first female diver; Anna’s dad, a deft conman; and Dexter Styles, the nightclub owner and mobster for whom Anna’s father works. In many ways, it is a coming of age story about a savvy girl, Anna, who at age 19, is left to care for her mother and disabled sister. Her father has disappeared and is presumed dead. The plot is driven by that disappearance and by Anna’s quest to find him.

Like all of Egan’s books (she won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad), the writing is stellar. But unlike the stylistically edgy former book, Manhattan Beach is a traditional novel. Some of the best passages are those describing the sea, with its power to calm as well as destroy. Water is a healing metaphor than brings inner awareness to the main characters.

As literary critic Beth Kephart concludes:

Manhattan Beach will take readers onto the high seas and into "Treasure Island"-style adventure. It will pit Anna's desire to do the work she was born to do against the casualties of poorly considered decisions. It will recreate the gargantuan operation of the naval docks and the intimacy of friendships and jealousies. It will maintain a running conversation with the sea, about which Egan writes so masterfully that we may never again see the ocean quite the same way.*

 *Chicago Tribune, Monday, October 2, 2017

 

Shipfitters on lunch break at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, August 1944

Shipfitters on lunch break at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, August 1944

Official U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

 
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