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Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

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Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

4 Stars out of 5

The epigraph to Jennifer Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach is a quote from Moby Dick: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” With an opening line like this, I expected to settle into a contemplative sort of a book, but Manhattan Beach is nothing of the sort. It’s not a Melville-esque search for greater meaning in a mysterious universe, but more like a noir thriller, set on the gritty New York City waterfront during the Depression and World War II.

The book has three main characters. There is Anna Kerrigan, a plucky young woman who defies the established order to become the first female diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during the war. She’s a real pistol, a strong willed woman, and a forerunner of our current-day feminist movement. Then there is Anna’s father, Eddie Kerrigan, a down-on-his-luck bagman for the New York City mob, and Dexter Styles, Eddie’s big time gangster boss.

These three first appear together when Anna, at age eleven, accompanies her father on one of his local business excursions, picking up a “package” at the lavish Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles. At that young age, Anna has no idea what her father does for a living. And while she does sense that Dexter is some sort of big shot who holds the key to her family’s survival, she has no clue that the elegant man who watched her dip her toes into the waves that afternoon is a murderous mobster. Nor does she know that her father is about to totally disappear under mysterious circumstances, or that she and Dexter will become, shall we say, reacquainted again in the future.

It is true that all three characters have some sort of “thing” about the ocean. Anna dives beneath it to do dangerous work on battleship hulls, Dexter fashions cement shoes to send his gangland rivals to the bottom of it, and, as we learn towards the end of the novel, Eddie miraculously survives as a castaway upon the surface of it. I’m sure Egan is intending to make some sort of symbolic link between the ocean and the deep secrets that her characters each live with, which is undoubtedly why she went with that highfalutin epigraph.

But don’t let that nod to classic literature fool you. Manhattan Beach is certainly a well research work of historical fiction – it was especially interesting to be reminded that New York was, and still is, a seaport, not just a rock with skyscrapers on it. Egan is a gifted writer, a great turner of phrases, and Manhattan Beach is the kind of book that grabs you from start to finish. As Anna might say, it’s a “really swell” novel, and even though it doesn’t compare to Moby Dick, or offer the reader with any great depths to plumb, I highly recommend it.

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