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Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The jacket copy alone wouldn’t have grabbed me—a historical novel of New York, set in the Depression and War years?  The first female diver?  Gangsters and Ziegfeld Follies?

Uh uh.

But the author is Jennifer Egan, whose A Visit From the Goon Squad was the most inventive and lively collection of linked short stories that I’d read since Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?  So I gave Manhattan Beach a shot.

It proved an engaging and satisfying read.  Stock characters somehow expand into complexity.  The stifling misogyny of the period is contested and triumphed over by the spunky heroine.  There are gats and floozies alongside disabled children and closeted gays, as well as fascinating detail on the heavy and cumbersome diving equipment of the time, and a chapter that describes in gut-wrenching detail the ordeal of a group of merchant seamen clinging to life on a raft in the Indian Ocean when their ship is scuttled by a U-boat.

A Visit from the Good Squad was wickedly funny, casting a jaundiced eye on all that is corrupt, self-indulgent and hollow in early 21st Century North American life.  The voice behind Manhattan Beach is much more earnest; Egan paints a picture of a bygone age that is characterized by a kind of tough-minded idealism that we who dwell in this cynical present could do well to embrace and emulate. Philip Roth has said that during the latter years of WWII, America was “unified in purpose as never before”; it seems to me that Egan certainly captures that unified spirit in this novel.

 

-Joann McCaig