Review: Manhattan Beach

In both substance and style, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach marks an abrupt departure from her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. She turns away from the artistic high-wire act that illuminated some of the dark corners of American popular culture, and instead delivers a story about the machinations of the New York mob amid the United States' effort to defeat Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, Egan again creates a sophisticated, satisfying blend of artfully drawn characters and skillfully plotted drama.

Set principally in Brooklyn in the early 1940s, Manhattan Beach revolves around Anna Kerrigan, whose father, Eddie, a bagman for one of the principals of the "Wop Syndicate," mysteriously disappeared half a decade earlier, leaving behind his wife, Anna, and her profoundly handicapped sister. Anna works as a parts inspector at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but her ambition is to become a professional diver and repair the massive vessels she gazes at on her lunch hour. In order to overcome the undisguised sexism of that time and achieve her goal, she's forced to prove herself even more skilled than the men against whom she's competing.

Egan creates a bevy of colorful and realistic characters that surround the earnest Anna. One is the shadowy Dexter Styles, a gangster who never seems fully at home in the world of crime; he also dwells uneasily in the inner circles of New York society and high finance where his wife's family has its roots. But Egan is less interested in mob dealings than she is in portraying Anna's gritty quest. In a well-paced narrative, she judiciously deploys flashbacks to reveal Eddie Kerrigan's increasing disenchantment with his criminal activities. And when the truth of his disappearance finally is disclosed, it's neatly, but in no way obviously, connected to Anna's own career ambitions.

One of the most impressive aspects of Manhattan Beach is the verisimilitude of Egan's storytelling, a result of prodigious documentary and personal research she describes in the novel's acknowledgements. The book's epigraph is taken from Moby Dick and Egan delivers a terrifying description of a merchant ship crew's battle to survive a U-boat attack in the Indian Ocean. It is Melvillean in its vivid detail, something that's also true of her accounts of Anna's diving exploits.

While Anna's determination to overcome discrimination and make her way in the world is inspiring, Manhattan Beach isn't a message-driven novel. Instead, Jennifer Egan has applied her considerable talents to the far-from-simple task of telling an absorbing story, leaving it to readers to ponder the larger meaning of Anna's tale. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Jennifer Egan's latest is an absorbing story of a woman's quest to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance, while she struggles for acceptance in the male-dominated world of the early 1940s.

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