Wednesday, March 7, 2018

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan (fiction)

Jennifer Egan’s last book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Egan is an accomplished writer and one of my favorites.   Her writing is prosaic and small meaningful details add to the depth of the story.

When we first enter the story, a young, somewhat precocious girl named Anna Kerrigan is driving with her father to meet a shady character connected to the Brooklyn underworld.  It is winter, the year is 1934 and the man, Dexter Styles, will play an important role in Anna’s life.  In this small introduction to the characters, we right away catch a glimpse of the strong woman Anna will become.  The depression is on and it is inferred that Anna’s father has fallen on hard times after the stock market crash. The car they are driving belongs to another, and in desperation to feed his family and buy a wheelchair for Anna’s severely handicapped sister, he has taken on a job as a bag man for a crooked Union boss.

The book then leaps ahead to the early 1940s when the US had just entered the war.  Anna gets a job on the Manhattan docks which at this time are servicing the many warships that come and go.  Her father has disappeared, and Anna is the mainstay of her family, what little money she earns going toward making her sister comfortable. Egan is at her best making the world of the docks and workers come alive in vivid detail.  It reminds me of the ambiance of the old movie, “On the Waterfront.”  Soon tiring of her boring line job, Anna becomes fascinated with the divers she sees working on the ships underwater hulls. Through determination and strength of character, Anna manages to join the crew in work that is meaningful to her, as the only woman diver. She earns the respect of the men she works with. Anna’s life at this time is reflected in the many many cultural details that Egan includes for us.  We can see how the War is beginning to change women’s lives and their importance in the workplace.

Not knowing the fate of her father is the catalyst that drives Anna to find Dexter Styles again, with the hopes that he will provide her with the answer.  Styles is rich and has married into an old, wealthy and respected New York family.  He is an alpha male moving the society of his father-in-law.  Egan brings in some of the politics of the era and is fabulous at describing family dynamics and how the depression and war changed family structure forever.

I love the way Egan weaves the characters together as their relationships ebb and flow.  I love Anna’s relationship with her father, her sister, with Styles and the bosses on the waterfront, and how these characters affect and change Anna. As a character Anna is strong, resourceful, open-minded and clever.  Just the same she makes mistakes and because of this is a real human being.

I really enjoyed this book and felt I was part of the life of the Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and the busy docks that are no longer there in the same way.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.

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