There are at least three or four Great American Novels pressed between the pages of Manhattan Beach: moody gangster noir; sweeping WWII romance; classic New York immigrants’ tale; timeless story of the sea. That they never quite converge into one cohesive whole can’t really diminish the pleasure of reading a writer as singularly gifted as Jennifer Egan (Look at Me; the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad), who radiates nearly every sentence with the X-ray beam of her emotional intelligence and keen storycraft.
On a blustery winter day in 1934, 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her bagman father to the palatial oceanside home of a man named Dexter Styles. The adults do their inscrutable business; she intrigues Styles with a flash of brash adolescent defiance, and the moment passes. Eight years later the Depression has given way to wartime, and Anna is still living at home with her mother and younger sister, Lydia — a girl with a face as lovely as Veronica Lake’s and palsied limbs permanently damaged at birth. But her father is gone, his dubious absence lost in the slipstream of the tens of thousands called to serve overseas. And though she finds a ladies’ job doing piecework at the local shipyard, she dreams of something much closer to the action: the divers who work deep below the surface, troubleshooting the hulking carriers headed for battle. Chance also brings Anna back to Styles, a Gatsby-esque figure of self-invention with secrets that bind them both.
Fans who fell in love with Goon Squad‘s tricky brilliance might find the narrative here almost too familiar; some moments channel the hard-bitten prose of Raymond Chandler, others the sea-dog flintiness of Hemingway. (Egan’s period research is impeccable, even if it sometimes distracts as much as it illuminates.) But at its best, Beach summons what every reader hopes for: the immersive magic of a world that feels more real, even just for a few hours, than your own. B+