I remember liking Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, so when I saw she was coming out with a new novel after seven years, I was eager to give it a go. Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, then follows the story of a young woman, Anna Kerrigan, as she becomes a diver during World War II. Alongside her story is that of a nightclub owner / gangster Dexter Styles and his possible connection to the disappearance of Anna’s father, a professional bagman. I’ve had a wonderful run of really good historical fiction recently (The Heart’s Invisible Furies and The Address), so I was eager to immerse myself in the world Egan creates.Unfortunately, I just found Manhattan Beach boring and the ending drawn out too long.
There were some parts I really enjoyed, and that kept me reading till the end: Anna’s diving and her struggle to prove herself in a traditionally male profession was particularly strong. I also liked the parts about Anna’s disabled sister Lydia, and her response to visiting the sea was incredibly moving. The side characters as well were compelling — Charlie Voss’ affection for Anna was sweet, Aunt Brienne and Nell were such awesome women, and fellow divers Bascombe and Merle were intriguing. I liked the way Nell’s romance turned out — even though part of me wished she got her happy ending, I like that what happened to her felt realistic, and probably happened to many other women during that era. Finally, I really liked Dexter’s backstory — while at times it felt like mere distractions from the real story, I liked seeing how his father shaped the man he became.
But overall, the book fell flat for me. I didn’t really care about why Anna’s dad walked out on his family, nor did I care about how he became involved with the criminal world, and this was such a huge chunk of the plot and source of Anna’s motivation. Anna’s romance felt icky, mostly because her first encounter with this man was when she was a child and he an adult, so all I kept thinking was that he was old enough to be her father.
I also thought the minor characters were under-utilized, and that they had the potential to do so much more. But I think part of that is that their disappearance and reappearance in the story just felt somewhat random, and they never quite felt fully integrated into the story. Even Anna’s mother, who cared for her and Lydia long after their father disappeared, seemed to have been discarded from the plot about halfway through, and given some pretty major moments in Anna’s life later on, I wondered why she didn’t turn to her mother for help.
Overall, the book isn’t bad. There are some interesting parts and the quality of Egan’s writing carried me through to the end. But it also felt long, and bogged down with details and subplots that weren’t all that interesting.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.