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Review: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is a sparkling, lush epic of a novel

Jennifer Egan

Pieter van Hattem

Title
Manhattan Beach
Author
Jennifer Egan
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Scribner
Pages
448
Price
$37

The subject matter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan's latest novel, Manhattan Beach, is not particularly revelatory. The book's overarching themes are certainly well-worn, its characters the kind we're accustomed to. The book tackles precarious familial bonds, secrets and lies, love and lust, abandonment and individualism – all ideas we've encountered in literature many times before. Even its traditional filmic visuals have been revisited time and again, situating itself first in the bleakness of Depression-era New York, and later in the perils of the Second World War.

What is revelatory, however, is how beautifully drawn, vivid and moving this familiar setup is when crafted by Egan's skilled hand. Although the basic structure and setting is perhaps standard, her talent renders it anew – making Manhattan Beach a sparkling, lush epic of a novel.

The novel gracefully opens by introducing us to almost-12-year-old Anna Kerrigan, a dutiful daughter accompanying her father, Eddie, on a visit to the Manhattan Beach home of the mysterious wealthy "businessman" Dexter Styles. The scene is finely detailed with Anna's wanting, the subject of her desire a coveted Flossie Flirt doll belonging to Styles's daughter, a concealed want that underscores the disparity and desperation of the era. Further, the foreboding atmosphere suggests something nefarious about Styles, leading us to believe this particular meeting, as uneventful as it seems on the surface, will dramatically alter the lives of all of its players.

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Fast-forward to the life of a young adult Anna and we learn that Eddie has deserted his family – including Anna's beloved younger, disabled sister, Lydia. In the thick of the Second World War, a new crop of jobs have opened up to women, and the fiercely independent Anna works at a naval shipyard, managing to become the first female diver, and enduring treacherous and even life-threatening conditions to do vital underwater repairs.

Of course, the memory of her father and a need to understand what happened to him lingers, and when Anna ends up having a chance encounter with Dexter Styles at a buzzing nightclub one evening, the reader is shot into an increasing dramatic momentum that suggests nothing but doom. Anna's relentless curiosity and drive are what make her admirable, but her refusal to accept the world's dismissals drive her further and further into upset. It is her entanglement with Styles that eventually leads her to the truth about her father, but it also leads us to question whether the truth is always worth finding out.

Manhattan Beach ticks every box when it comes to traditional blockbuster reader enjoyment. Although this entertaining Hollywood tone risks delivering us caricatures, each player in this drama – from gangster, to sailor, to daughter, to husband, to lover – has a genuine depth, fleshed out in both motivation and identity. Beyond that, the novel's intense historical detail is undeniably impressive. The costuming, the menu, the shipyard's tools, the news events of the day – all so artfully rendered as to seem effortless. (This feat is made all the more impressive when you remember that this is Egan's first attempt at a historical novel.)

As for the more dramatic scenes, this is a truly visceral book – Egan has a real knack for submerging her readers, a particularly fitting word thanks to how much of the novel takes place on or under water. The diving is claustrophobic and oppressive, enough to trigger panic in even the most resolute. The chill of the beach is overbearing. The sea storms are scathing. The violence is brutal, and the sensuality substantial.

Despite how carefully structured and researched every page is, this is a book of tactile, sensory feeling and strong human sentiment, allowing itself an experimental looseness when necessary. "Gradually, the primal nature of the motion emptied his mind," Egan writes in one particularly physically and emotionally harrowing diving scene. "He was crawling in the dark. Crawling in the dark. He was crawling. Crawling. After a while, he could not remember why."

But more than any other ingredient, it's the complex dynamics that propel this human tragedy where Manhattan Beach finds its deepest strength. Even when we can predict the unravelling that is to come, it is no less enthralling. The experiences of these characters ring true, as do their flaws, their desires and their downfalls.

"Luck was the single thing that could rearrange facts," Egan writes. "It could open a door where there was no door. A crooked game was worse than unfair; it was a cosmic violation."

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Without that rare kind of emotional resonance, without that skilled universality, a novel of this heft would merely be the good product of a great writer flexing and showing off. Instead, Manhattan Beach transcends a mere showcase of established talent and evolves into something much more moving, much more meaningful, and much more alive.

Stacey May Fowles's books include the novel Infidelity and Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me.

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