Manhattan Beach: A Novel

This noir historical fiction (448 pages) was published in October of 2017 by Scribner. The book takes you to 1940s Brooklyn. Melissa read Manhattan Beach and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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Manhattan Beach

A Novel

Jennifer Egan

Put this novel in a bookshop, and it would be shelved with historical fiction, thanks to its setting in 1930s and ’40s New York City. It’s also delfy weaves in elements of family drama, gangster noir, workplace story, and wartime adventure — with a spirited, obstinate heroine at its heart.

This is mostly the coming-of-age story of Anna Kerrigan and her relationship with her father Eddie. Many interesting characters influence her life as she grows from a scrappy 12-year-old girl to an adult woman who as Seen Some Things. But the bond between her and her dad is the one that drives all of her choices.

We first meet her in 1934: a precocious pre-teen, just beginning to understand that her beloved father might be more complicated than he seems. When he disappears a few years later, Anna is left with questions — Did he go on the lam? Is he dead? — and a slightly hardened heart. Necessity and war mean she’s now the sole breadwinner for her mother and disabled sister, and she grinds out her days inspecting ship parts at the Naval Yard in Brooklyn. Until she sees the civilian divers in their 200-pound suits, sinking beneath the waters of the East River. Suddenly, Anna can envision a future she desperately wants.

Her ambition to become a diver is complicated by messy relationships, flirtations with gangsters, the everyday sexism of being a woman in the 1940s, and the genuine physical demands of breathing underwater inside a cumbersome apparatus. Not to mention the lingering questions about her father’s fate.

Anna’s story is also the tale of a particular time in America, shedding light on the lesser-known stories of WWII. As the stakes get higher and the plot takes surpising turns, it’s impossible to not root for Anna — especially when her choices seem to be lose-lose. It’s all enormously satisfying when the plot points and characters’ experiences converge, and Anna find the resolution she needs.

A familiar smell engulfed her: fish, salt, fuel oil—a brackish, industrial version of the sea that was so complicated, so specific, it was like the smell of a particular human being. It evoked an earlier time that she no longer quite remembered. Her father’s suits still hung in his wardrobe, lapels sharp, shoulders brushed, painted neckties reinforced with whalebone. They looked like the suits of a man who would return at any moment to put them on. He’d left behind an envelope full of cash and a bankbook for an account her mother hadn’t known about. These preparations had made them believe at first that he was merely girding them for a longer than usual trip—he’d begun to travel for work. For months his absence had remained volatile and alive, as if he were in the next room or down the block. Anna had awaited him acutely. She would sit on the fire escape, grinding her gaze over the street below, thinking she saw him—trusting that thinking so would force him to appear. How could he stay away when she was waiting so hard? — Jennifer Egan

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