Jennifer Egan continues to display keen insights into the American psyche in Manhattan Beach, a compelling historical blend of noir thriller, literary adventure, and feminism set during World War II. Egan’s primary protagonist is Anna Kerrigan, a young woman with a fair amount of drama in her home life. Her beautiful sister Lydia is disabled, and her beloved father disappeared years ago. But thanks to the war, Anna’s life is about to take a drastically different shape. The shortage of men in the workforce has led to an opportunity: a well-paying job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, which gives her more independence and autonomy than is generally afforded to the women of her time. She makes the most of this opportunity, defying the odds to become one of the first female divers, doing “men’s work” repairing ships on the New York waterfront. Anna’s life, however, is mysteriously entwined with that of Dexter Styles, a powerful mafia figure whom Anna vaguely recalls visiting with her father as a child — shortly before her father vanished. When by happenstance Styles re-enters Anna’s life, the mystery of Anna’s father’s disappearance takes hold again, leading Anna down a dangerous path that will have drastic consequences on the exciting, newfound freedom of her life.
Manhattan Beach paints a convincing portrait of its era, blending disparate elements into an enticing and eloquent literary mystery. But the intrigue surrounding Anna’s missing father, while central to the plot momentum, is also well executed metaphor about the dramatic changes that occurred for women entering workforce during an era when it was neither expected or accepted. The wartime life Anna builds for herself is challenging, but liberating and satisfying — and destined to end, it seems, when the soldiers return home. Egan effectively delves into the mindset of a woman in this predicament, an incisive character portrait that also illuminates the gradual, transformative effect of the war on American gender dynamics in the mid-twentieth century. I didn’t find it quite as engrossing as Look at Me or A Visit from the Goon Squad, but Manhattan Beach takes its narrative in unexpected directions and depicts a fascinating era from a fresh perspective. Another marvelous novel from an exceptional writer.