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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

October 10, 2017


manhattan beach.jpg

Some novels feel like they were written with a movie in mind because they are sparse and visual, little more than a screenplay with scene direction. I always feel a little slighted by those novels, maybe because the author shifts the burden of imagining onto the reader, gives the plot but no meat on the bones. But there are also novels that feel like movies because they are so sensual, so textured, so rich that the imagery is as vivid as the cinema. That’s how Manhattan Beach feels.

In an interview with The New York Times book review podcast, Egan says she was influenced heavily by noir films. You can feel that—the danger than lingers in the shadows just off-screen. But you can also feel the incredible amount of research she did on New York during World War II. I loved the details of the world, particularly the nuanced language of the time. And from the opening scene, where the three main characters—Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie and his associate Dexter Styles meet on the beach in 1934—you can feel Egan’s skills as a painter of worlds. The cold of the air, the crunch of the sand, the taste of the salt in the air—it is all palpable and transportive.

The story jumps ahead a decade from there, as the lives of the three characters diverge and intertwine with a Dickensian sense of fate. Anna works at the Naval yards, one of the first female divers to repair and salvage ships (of the 70,000 who worked the Brooklyn Navy Yard, only 5,000 were women and a woman diver was virtually unheard of). Styles is one-foot-in, one-foot out of the equivalent of a middle management position in organized crime. And Eddie’s life takes a number of turns that I won’t give away.

Egan walks the line between the familiar (gangster, Boardwalk Empire-style tropes) and the surprising. Many people have noted this is a departure from Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, a riskier, more inventive novel formalistically. I will admit, I’ve had Goon Squad on my shelf for years but haven’t read it yet. So for me, this was just a very readable book with solid storytelling, deep characters and delightful craft.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2017 11:40 pm

    Couldnt agree more!!


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