Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachI finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.

Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.

Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.

In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.

And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.

9 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

  1. Hahahaha, damn, girl, “pedestrian” is a harsh burn. YET I am delighted to hear of it — I liked Visit from the Goon Squad okay, but the other Egan book I read was very, very meh for me. And I kind of expected to dislike this one, and I’m weirdly satisfied to feel justified in that. :p

  2. Hi Priscilla, like you I read the book and had very mixed feelings about the plot development in the latter part of the book, but didn’t feel I could go there in my review. For my part, I love a good detail-rich historical novel and also loved Goon Squad. Thanks for sharing what you disliked, without revealing too much. Maybe we can talk offline!

  3. Jenny, I was so surprised that the plot followed such a predictable line. If this were a debut novel, or if Egan routinely wrote this sort of book, I probably would have been easier on it. But always happy to spread delight when I can. 😉

  4. Curlygeek, when I read your review I wondered if you had some of the same issues. I thought the historical details were fantastic, and that probably didn’t come through enough because I was so disappointed by the plot. I wanted more for Anna! Also, I think my expectations were perhaps too high; if this were a debut novel, I would have been easier on it. I don’t like writing negative reviews in general, but I felt like I wanted to share because of the mixed reviews I’ve seen.

  5. I heard Egan speak in Houston recently, and I got a free copy of her book. Two reasons I’d planned to read this book. Your review. One reason I may skip it.


  6. Readerbuzz, I am so sorry for the late reply! For some reason WordPress marked it as spam. I am jealous you got to hear Egan speak; in general I think very highly of her as a writer. I did have some issues with Manhattan Beach, but I also had very high expectations that I think probably clouded my view. Much of the book is excellent in its historical detail, and the writing is terrific. Definitely don’t skip it, but please do let me know what you think!

  7. SPOILERS (or at least big hints) MAY FOLLOW: really enjoyed the process of reading the book, but when it was all over I felt like, well, it was all over and now what? Your comments are helping me hone in on what left me with those feelings. Anna’s predicament seemed… pointless. This complex woman with all her agency suddenly becomes reduced to a billboard for What Was Wrong With The Forties, and from there on out nothing she can do will be satisfying to her… or to us. Meanwhile, why did we spend so much time getting inside the head of a rather unsavory character — and his whole family!– only to have him meet a cryptic fate that we have to learn about from a newspaper headline? I would not hesitate to recommend the book to anyone who is interested in 40s New York, but it’s not on my GOAT list, either.

  8. Gretchen, sorry for my late reply! Yes, yes, Egan set Anna up so well, and then all of the sudden it was like she became a different character entirely. It didn’t occur to me that Egan might have had an agenda (not saying that she did, but your point that she became a sort of stand in for all women of that time makes me wonder) in having Anna make decisions that really made no sense at all for the character.

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