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Deep Diving and Mysterious Events in Brooklyn
Thursday, February 14, 2019 -- Any time I come upon an author whose works are new to me, I am instinctively, and firmly, convinced that I will be disappointed. There are exceptions and Jennifer Egan is one of them. After a stellar recommendation from my wife and several others, I devoured Manhattan Beach, which hit bookshelves in late 2017.
Manhattan Beach is Egan's fifth novel and her first since winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From the Goon Squad. There's an easy charm to her writing that I like. And I'm clearly not alone. Manhattan Beach made The New York Times 100 Notable Books list in 2017. It was also the most requested adult book throughout the New York City library system in 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Manhattan Beach is a stylish and purposeful journey that is, quite literally, a deep dive into a World War II-era Brooklyn family with ties to the waterfront mob. The borough itself, the bustling Brooklyn Navy Yard and the port of the 1940s are characters in their own right. They're the scene of all kinds of interesting and absorbing action that partially explains why Manhattan Beach is so entertaining and enjoyable.
Egan's story showcases how women's traditional roles in the workplace eventually gave way to a series of greater opportunities and challenges.
Anna Kerrigan, the main character, exemplifies this change. Young and single, Kerrigan earns her living measuring small parts used in the construction of the mammoth battleship USS Missouri. Out of nowhere, she evinces a growing interest in commercial diving. Becoming a diver, one of the first females to do so, allows her to escape her mundane and repetitive job. Anna is met with fierce resistance--the male divers universally oppose her--but she perseveres and she prevails.
(An aside: Early on I had the feeling that there was just too much detail about diving, but as the story moves along, I realized how significant this activity was on several levels.)
Although Manhattan Beach is a workplace-centric story and the place where characters intersect and interact, it's an incident in her family life that becomes a pivotal plot point. Her father, Eddie, mysteriously disappears. Eddie is the eyes and ears of a local mob boss, Dexter Styles, who controls a number of neighborhood nightclubs--some legit, some not so much. One day Eddie is simply gone, leaving behind Anna, her crippled younger sister (who doesn't speak until a memorable moment at the beach) and their mother, Agnes.
Anna becomes suspicious of the circumstances of her father's vanishing because of his association with Styles. She recalls meeting him as a young girl in 1934 while accompanying her father to a meeting along the Brooklyn shoreline of the title. Despite the distance of time and place, Anna remembers that her father was uneasy and not his usual confident self around Styles.
There is, of course, more to Eddie's story than his absence. Secrets abound and Egan expertly reveals how they shape who we are and how we choose to act in the world.
Anna's life is then shaken by an unexpected family tragedy and shaken again when she becomes pregnant. Confronted by the social condemnation that almost always greeted the arrival of an illegitimate child and aware of the ramifications of single motherhood at the time, Anna moves to California. As cover for her situation, she devises a fiction about a husband recently killed on a remote battlefield. In the process, she not only generates sympathy, but also escapes scorn.
Her father's sister, a well-traveled, middle-aged woman, joins Anna and her newborn on the West Coast and they appear to create a satisfying new life. Anna even resumes her diving career after working as a cashier in a local diner.
A carefully crafted storyline and surprising plot twists elevate the material in Manhattan Beach. Then there is Egan's skill in taking disparate characters and weaving them together in what is not so much historical fiction, as it's been categorized, but perhaps, more accurately, an entirely different, and more popular, genre.
Even naming the genre would be a spoiler and I don't wish to spoil Manhattan Beach for you. To its last line, it's memorable, satisfying and touching.
Manhattan Beach is available in a variety of formats from Amazon.com.
This column is Copyright © 2019 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.