- What: Manhattan Beach
- Who: Jennifer Egan
- Pages: 433
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
As a book blogger, you’d think that I thrive on book reviews. Quite the opposite. I know this sounds backward (and doesn’t exactly promote Big Little Literature), but I try to avoid spoilers and/or getting my hopes up when possible. But I struggled to stay away from one book in particular this year. Manhattan Beach hit me like a bang. From the mind of a best seller, this historical fiction novel made a huge impact on the reading scene in 2017. New York even included it on its anticipation index multiple times before it was released (probably because it took 13 years to finish), and I’ve seen it on many best-of-2017 lists so far. Let’s just say, it made some big conversation.
Of course, I made sure I put it on my library holds as soon as it was released. My favorite genre, a bad-ass author, and praise all over. I came home beaming the day I got it. I can’t say the smile stayed on my face for the book’s entirety. So here’s the truth from my red lips: A top contender for the best of 2017 didn’t make my list.
Manhattan Beach starts in 1930s Brooklyn with poverty and gangsters running rampant. In the first chapter, our main character, 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, takes a trip to the eponymous shoreline with her father, Eddie, to visit a man whose connection and history is lost on Anna but will later come back to haunt her. It’s this encounter with Dexter Styles that sets Anna’s story into motion and makes us wonder if and when the three will reunite in the future.
Fast forward a decade, and the country is in the midst of World War II as the events overseas influence every decision made back home. Eddie has disappeared, leaving Anna, her mother, and her disabled younger sister to care for themselves. Anna has dropped out of college to help with the war effort and now has a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard while she and her mother spend any free moment caring for the youngest Kerrigan.
As Anna finds herself bored with menial factory labor, she discovers a fascination with the divers who help repair war ships at the Navy Yard. Determined by her curiosity and a chase for equality and purpose, Anna convinces the Navy of her strength and skills and becomes the first female diver after an arduous process. Then, at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles once again though he fails to recognize her. Through multiple encounters with him, Anna starts putting together the pieces of her father’s mystery. The story winds in and out of Dexter’s money and illicit activities while interspersing Anna’s days at the piers as we try to figure out how they are linked together and what type of ending will unfold.
Books are great because the best ones transport you to another time and place; I love historical fiction because it places you somewhere that once existed. The best writing and the most distinguishable characters put you in that period’s clothing and help you embody a particular sense of humor. They make you walk and talk a certain way; they envelope you in the cultural and political climate of the time.
Manhattan Beach failed to do this for me. It was more history than historical fiction, and the book gave off a “This is what happened in this year in this place” vibe. While I love learning of the little tidbits that distinguish an era, I want to learn those through a character’s feelings and actions. I couldn’t decipher Anna’s struggles or inner turmoil, and Dexter’s motivations and actions were also lost on me. This lack of a connection within the characters and between them made the story drone on for a good portion. When Egan did provide insight into a character or scene, it seemed she was trying too hard to turn a phrase, and I found myself having to reread many passages.
“Dexter could only marvel at the slight of hand whereby his father-in-law had jimmied himself out of a straitjacket with enough leverage to extract promises.” — Manhattan Beach
It wasn’t until I read Ruth Franklin’s review in The Atlantic that I realized there was an air of Professor Bins that bothered me. “This feels less like a passage in a novel than an answer to an exam question about what people in Brooklyn listened to on the radio in 1942,” she wrote. Whereas Egan’s words and characterizations tripped me up, though, Franklin praised them. “It is disappointing to find this wonderful language sometimes buried in that bugbear of the historical novel: a surfeit of research.”
This was just one flaw though. Why was I still struggling to pinpoint why I wanted to assign Manhattan Beach only three flames? It took place during WWII, so I was even interested in a lot of the history, and it wasn’t as if I prematurely returned it to the library. I shared my inner conflict with my friend Dana who then provided me with some insight: “Well sometimes you just can’t connect with it.”
I love historical fiction, especially anything that takes place during wartime, but I couldn’t get lost in Manhattan Beach. It garnered more of my attention during the last 150 pages, but it still failed to combust. Not only were there missed connections among the characters but also with me as a reader and not because of any particular reason. This taught me a big lesson: Not jumping for joy doesn’t mean a book is bad; it could just mean it’s not for you. So, Manhattan Beach, maybe it’s not you; maybe it’s me.
“We work in the realm of the impression.” — Manhattan Beach