Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

manhattanbeachWriting: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

New word for me: apotropaic (supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.)

A cross between A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and an action oriented WWII novel.

I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It’s unusual in that it is both character and detailed action driven, by which I mean that equal emphasis was placed on the characters and their environments. The story takes place in New York City during WWII.  It revolves around three interconnected characters, each with their own narrative arc:  Anna is a quick witted and focussed young girl growing up in Brooklyn who likes accompanying her father on his “bag drops”; Dexter Styles, a polite gangster married into an upper crust family who seems to have more depth and sense of morality than many in his position; and Eddie, Anna’s father, who mysteriously disappears one day after several years working for Dexter Styles.

The settings have been given equal, if not greater, time and focus in the story.  Anna takes a job in the Navy Yard during WWII and gets a strong urge to become a diver after glimpsing a dive on her way home.  We are treated to in depth descriptions of her war work, diving equipment of the time, dive protocols and processes, and the ease with which a woman could get into that line of work (hint: no ease at all!). In another narrative stream we learn about life as a merchant marine during the war, including a detailed shipwreck survivor scenario. Lastly, details about the world of upper class banking and gangsterhood (hint: one is legal but that is about all that separates them!) abound.  For me, some of the technical descriptions went on a bit longer than I found necessary but I am good at adjusting reading speed to match my interest in the section so this was not a problem. I know others will find these action scenes / technical details more exciting than I did.

While the story revolves around the three primary characters above, there are many additional, well drawn supporting characters. Each was representative of a certain “type” in the era, but also a clear individual with their own personality, quirks, and goals. Lydia, Anna’s sister, born with an undefined wasting disease (sounded like cerebral palsy to me); her mother Agnes, the beautiful follies star who gave up working to love and care for Lydia; the Berringer family, a wealthy Episcopalian family into which Styles marries; Marle, the only negro in the dive class; Paul who thought diving might help him get into the navy and others.

Good writing, interesting characters, complex plot – a good combination of action oriented and character driven – rare in novels.  A little long winded for me in parts, though I’m guessing others would pick the opposite parts to shorten.  Definitely worth reading.

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