Jennifer Egan’s latest book, Manhattan Beach is a well-researched historical novel. New York’s shipyards provides the setting. The story begins during the Great Depression and winds into World War II. The lead character, Anna Kerrigan, a young girl of the depression transforms into one of the many Rosie the Riveter’s needed during the war.
Depression Era New York
Manhattan Beach is a complex tale of life on the waterfront. Egan skillfully intertwines the many facets of social life during the late 1930’s. Characters represented the wealth of society, those struggling to put food on the table and the mob element that often reached between the two. We meet Anna and her father, Eddie, at the start of the story as he reaches out to Dexter Styles in hopes of landing a job. In addition to providing basic needs for a family of four, Eddie needs to have additional funds to care for Anna’s younger sibling, an invalid who cannot even sit on her own. Styles, although married to a society beauty, has ties to the mob.
World War II
After a short introduction, Egan skips ahead to World War II where we find Anna inspecting parts on an assembly line. The younger sister is still alive and still just as needy. However, Eddie Kerrigan has disappeared, affairs in order but no word to wife and family. First Anna is worried. Eventually anger overtakes the worry. From this point on Egan uses flashbacks to fill in the gaps of time.
Anna’s character is compelling. The reader pictures her easily. She is loyal to family and to country. The picture of virtue, yet the flashbacks reveal the human nature underneath. Her role as breadwinner during the war rings true. The storyline propels Anna from an assembly line filled with war wives to the first female underwater diver. Naturally there is adversity to overcome.
When Egan is not writing Anna’s story, the author is telling that of both Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles. In a twist, Kerrigan is alive half way around the world although Styles believes him dead. Both men tangle with the underworld of organized crime. Both cross the “boss” and so pay a certain price.
Manhattan Beach is rich in historical detail. From the description of New York City to the actions and attitudes of the characters, Jennifer Egan accurately captures the good and bad of the era. There is some violence as well as a few adult scenes but they move the story forward. The supporting characters provide insights into the three main characters. I recommend Manhattan Beach especially to anyone interested in this time period.