Steve Clark gives Jennifer Egan's novel, Manhattan Beach his highest recommendation.
The book follows two characters: Dexter Styles and Anna Kerrigan, who when the book begins is twelve years old living with her parents in 1934 Brooklyn. She has a seriously handicapped little sister, whom she dearly loves, a father who supposedly works for the longshoreman’s union, and a mother who used to dance on the Broadway stage. Her father takes her to visit one of his purported business associates, Dexter Styles, who lives in a beautiful house on the beach.
A few years later Anna’s father mysteriously disappears, leaving behind no note other than his bank account information. As the war breaks out in 1941, Anna finds work, tediously measuring tiny parts for the Navy, five and half days a week, while wishing she was doing something more exciting for the war effort. One day she borrows a bicycle on her lunch hour from a good-time girl named Nell and rides farther down the harbor. She notices Navy divers going under water to clear obstructions in the harbor or work on the hulls of ships. Anna thinks this looks exciting and applies for that job. Of course, in 1942 she is laughed off as a mere girl.
One evening Nell invites the less flashy Anna to go night clubbing in Manhattan. There she meets the nightclub owner, Dexter Styles. The two stare at each other but initially neither recalls where they’ve actually met. Nell shows Anna a wilder side of life, which Anna, a sweet Catholic kid, finds tempting.
Then the book shifts to Styles, a man who has changed his name from an Italian version, to make himself more respectable to his new in-laws, wealthy WASPs. Styles is the number two man in a mob which owns nightclubs, gambling rackets, and runs booze. Nevertheless, Styles comes off as sympathetic, as one of those “honest” gangsters who is also a good family man.
Anna remembers that she met Styles when she was twelve with her father and thinks Styles might know what happened to him, since he disappeared shortly after the meeting. She tries to plan assignations with Style and eventually succeeds. He is attracted to the young woman and you can guess what happens from there.
In the meantime, as a joke, the lieutenant in charge of the Navy divers at the harbor gives Anna a chance to don the 200-pound diving suit with helmet, never expecting her to even make it to the edge of the water. Although several of the men in the new team wash out, Anna competes her first dive and eventually rises as one of the better divers in the unit. Descriptions of the diving are fascinating, and you can’t help but love the young woman who conquers her fears and shows up the men.
Towards the end Egan switches POV again, this time letting us know what happed to the father, who was not working for the union, but involved in a Federal racketeering investigation. The account of his World War II activity is equally interesting, and Egan has clearly done solid research.
I won’t tell you how it ends but you will stay up late to finish Manhattan Beach. A solid read, brilliantly written and edited — my heartiest recommendation.
Steve E Clark as seen in the New York Times is Author of Justice Is for the Lonely and Justice Is for the Deserving, Kristen Kerry Novels Of Suspense. You can purchase his books via SteveClarkAuthor.com/BuyBook or request it at your local book store. Want to know more about Steve Clark, read more reviews or speak directly with Steve? Learn more about Steve at SteveClarkAuthor.com