Manhattan Beach

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Manhattan Beach
448 pages; Scribner
The maritime history of Brooklyn is many fathoms deep. Before it became a trendy backdrop for high-end real estate, the borough’s waterfront hosted colonists and clipper ships, fishermen and freighters, a mighty navy yard and some of the most ambitious mobsters in a town lousy with them. It is at the intersection of these gritty worlds that Jennifer Egan has situated her tale of filial love and female empowerment, Manhattan Beach (Scribner), a story that glides along on a swift and beguiling current toward the source of its essential mystery.


The novel begins in 1934. Eleven-year-old Anna Kerrigan is a faithful companion to her father, Eddie, as he goes about conducting “union business” around the city. Like most folks, the Kerrigans have been hit hard by the Depression. But not so the man whose “palace of golden brick” they are visiting on a cold morning: Nightclub impresario Dexter Styles lives like a king in “the last house on the street, which dead-ended at the sea.” There is a “Negro maid in a pale blue uniform” and windows through which “the sea tingled under a thin winter sun.” Overseen by an Irish “Nurse,” the Styles children play with the latest toys, Lionel trains and Flossie Flirt dolls. Anna envies it all, but what mesmerizes her is the Atlantic, which she eyes with “an electric mix of attraction and dread.” That ocean, and the magnetic Dexter, will figure heavily in Anna’s future when, years later, World War II rages and Eddie has long since vanished. By then Anna has taken a job at the navy yard alongside other women aiding the war effort. After watching a group of men training to be divers, she elbows her way into their ranks. The discoveries she makes will unsettle her, but they’ll also set her free.


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan has proved herself an author of prodigious gifts. Her prose moves in a way that feels effortless, a sure sign that it’s anything but. Manhattan Beach bores deeply into the past and what’s at a family’s core. It is the best sort of historical fiction, transporting the reader to another place without ever loosing the bonds of the familiar. Egan’s characters are vivid, their authenticity a kind of wonder, their losses and joys achingly true. As Anna journeys toward independence, her story braiding like a fine rope with Dexter’s, she remains ineluctably tethered to the man who disappeared. And in the end, it’s the father-daughter dynamic to which we attend most keenly. Egan sets the knots, and we are in her thrall.

— Alexandra Styron