In Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s first novel in seven years, one woman struggles to find her place in an ever-changing world.
Anna is only twelve years old when she first meets Dexter Styles. He’s a powerful, mysterious man, and for reasons Anna doesn’t fully understand, her father seems intent on keeping his association with Styles a secret. Something doesn’t feel completely right about this to Anna, but she eventually lets it go and moves on with her life.
Years later, America has entered the Second World War, and Anna is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Her father, whom Anna idolized, has long since disappeared without a trace, an event that has forever changed her. She’s now the chief provider for her mother and severely disabled sister, so when she hears the yard is looking for divers, she jumps at the chance. It’s dangerous work, repairing the ships damaged in the war, but Anna is determined to be the first woman to hold such a position.
One night, while hanging out with friends at a nightclub, Anna comes face-to-face with Dexter Styles once again. This chance meeting will forever change the trajectory of Anna’s life as she delves deep into her father’s past, determined to discover what really happened to him.
AAR staffers Shannon and Kristen sat down to share their thoughts on this complex, emotionally-rich novel.
Shannon: I’d heard great things about Ms. Egan’s writing from friends whose reading tastes are similar to my own, but I’d never actually picked up something of hers. When I read the blurb for Manhattan Beach, I was so excited. It looked like the perfect starting place for me. I love historical fiction, especially World War II era novels, and Anna’s job as a diver intrigued me. What prompted you to read this book?
Kristen: I wanted to read it because I had read the author’s previous work, A Visit to the Goon Squad, and while it was not my favorite, I really respected it. To see how she would handle historical fiction was an opportunity I jumped at.
Shannon: Family is an important part of this story. How did Ms. Egan’s portrayal of family life work for you? Were there specific points related to family that you found problematic or worrisome?
Kristen: There are a thousand things I found worrisome, but I think that’s the point of the book! The evolving and dissolving definitions of family throughout it were fascinating and frustrating, but I have no idea how to talk about them without giving too much away. What about you?
Shannon: I agree with you that the point of the novel was to bring a lot of worrisome things to the forefront. I often felt that Anna’s family was both a blessing and a curse; it was the thing that bound her, but in a way, also the thing that pushed her to achieve her dreams. For example, she worked to support her mother and sister, and for quite a while, she put up with a bunch of undesirable things just to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads. Then, when she becomes aware of the diving job, she strives for it, both for herself and for the perks it will bring to her family.
Let’s talk about Dexter Styles. How would you characterize him? Were you satisfied by the part he played in the story, or did you expect something else?
Kristen: How would I characterize him…. *taps finger to nose in thought* creepy isn’t quite right, but neither is menacing because he’s far too smooth. He is a man who knows who he is and what he wants, even when he has no idea what’s happening around him. He thinks he’s more steps ahead than he is, but he’s still a lot of steps ahead. I get his import and I get why his relationship with Anna has to be what it is, but I spent a lot of time wondering about him. Does that make any sense?
Shannon: It actually makes quite a lot of sense. He’s not an easy character to pin down. When I first started reading, I kind of wondered if a romance would develop between him and Anna. I’m glad that didn’t end up happening, but it took me a little while to adjust my expectations once I realized the author was taking things in a different direction. Dexter is kind of thuggish, but so smooth, as you said. I never really liked him, but there were times I appreciated him. He offered Anna opportunities and insights that I doubt she would have had if not for him.
And what about Anna’s father? In many ways, the novel takes place with his shadow looming large over everything that happens. How did you feel about him both as a character and a plot device?
Kristen: That’s a great way to phrase that question because I never bought him as a character AT ALL. He was absolutely a plot device. Now, he was a device that powered the entire plot, so a necessary one, but the resolution of the whole novel only proved that feeling for me. What about you? How did he jive for you – especially in the ideas of family that Ms. Egan puts out?
Shannon: I definitely agree with you that he was more of a plot device than a true character in the novel. We got some insight into his behaviors, but not enough to ever make me feel I really knew him. His disappearance has such a devastating effect on Anna, and it is, arguably, the force that shapes her life all the way into adulthood. There’s a part of her that’s always wondering what became of him, and she isn’t ever fully able to put it to rest. In some ways, it goes back to what I said about Anna’s family being kind of a mixed blessing in her life. Her father is very much the same thing. She idolizes him, but what will happen if the truth of him doesn’t live up to her expectations? It’s a complicated thing, but then, I guess that’s how family is in real life as well in fiction.
How did you feel about Anna herself?
Kristen: Ugh… Shannon, I don’t know. I still can’t quite figure that out. She made complete sense to me at some points and I wanted to throttle her at others. Talk to me about what you think about her so I can continue my process, will ya?
Shannon: For the most part, I really liked Anna’s character. She was tenacious, hard-working, and smart, all characteristics I love in my heroines. I wanted her to view her father in a more realistic light, and the pedastal she put him on kind of annoyed me, but I think that’s a relatively small quibble. I loved Ms. Egan’s descriptions of Anna diving. They brought such a sense of time and place to the novel, and I knew absolutely nothing about the people responsible for fixing the warships, so her career choice was super fascinating to me.
Shannon: Did the story work for you overall? To whom would you recommend it?
Kristen: I didn’t enjoy the process of reading this book, but I’m glad I read it. It felt large and important and Ms. Egan wrestled with a lot of things in it, but it is simply not one I’m going to pick up again. I felt the same way about Goon Squad; I was glad I read it and her prose is arresting, but it’s not a journey I ever want to take again. As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely a work that fans of literary fiction should pick up, even if they’re usually averse to historicals. I know there’s a lot of readers who feel intimidated by the Books Deemed Important by the industry, as this one is, but I would say that that it’s fairly accessible. She never loses herself down rabbit holes of symbolism as many in this genre are wont to do. Instead, these are grounded characters struggling with real ideas. The whole thing made me profoundly sad, but I think that was its point. I’m giving it a B – an A for craftsmanship combined with a C for personal enjoyment. You?
Shannon: I did enjoy the book, although, like you, I don’t think I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s something I’m definitely glad I took the time to read though, and I would encourage lovers of historical fiction to give it a try. It’s definitely a literary novel, but I think Ms. Egan did a good job making it accessible to her readers. The plot was heavy, but I never felt like I was in over my head. My grade is a B+.