Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan

Compared to A Visit From the Goon Squad and other pieces of short fiction Jennifer Egan has published in the years since, her newest novel Manhattan Beach is unexpectedly straightforward. Moving from those experimental, future-reaching works, she has turned to historical fiction, finding a story set mostly during WWII, focused on a girl named Anna who works in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and two men who are part of the organized crime syndicate — one of whom is her father.

The foundational first 100 pages dragged for me, and I felt like I was waiting for things to come together. After that, the plot mostly coalesces, but while I felt drawn to continue reading, there are a lot of fantastic developments — in the sense that they weren’t that believable. The chance meeting of two characters and the way they develop a relationship just felt very convenient. Anna is drawn to learn how to be a diver in the navy yard to work on warships, which is one of the few jobs not available to women. She perseveres and these are some of the most interesting parts of the book, but eventually it leads to a situation that again was just so convenient for the narrative, as if the only reason she defied the odds to work as a diver was so it would be possible for her to do this other thing.

Egan did an immense amount of research and overall she balances how she uses this information; she resists showing off details that aren’t relevant to the plot and makes the period aspects of the story come alive convincingly. Some may find the detailed description of diving maneuvers tedious, but this interested me. The narrative storyline is where she stretches, straight through to the end, where everything is basically wrapped up in a perfect bow. Despite the contrivance of the plot, I enjoyed the book and learning a bit about Brooklyn during WWII, but I suspect Jennifer Egan wanted to write about a woman diver in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, and this book was written around the idea.

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