Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is the sort of book you read while at work. Like tucked inside an important memo. (One of my memories of elementary school is our teacher discovering that Joseph had been hiding a novel behind his math textbook and the teacher went bananas and used a meter stick to hit the book across the room. Which with the benefit of age now seems an unmeasured response. I mean, I can see being annoyed if he had a porn mag tucked in there, but a novel? Oh well. I guess we must Be Respected at all times. I DIGRESS.)
It’s an excellent novel. Really. Go and get it now and start reading. Things I think make it excellent (in no particular order):
- Assertive female protagonist (I was tempted to write ‘fierce,’ but I’m sort of done with women who just ask for what they deserve being described as ‘fierce.’ I mean, it’s not ‘fierce’ to expect equal pay or to be allowed to do what a man is doing. It’s just… sensible). Anyway. Anna is assertive and smart and sensitive and complex and flawed and amazing and many other adjectives that you will discover for yourself when you read this. Maybe I don’t even need to write ‘assertive.’ If I was describing excellent male characters (there are also those in this novel) I’d probably just write “excellent characters,” right? So enough with the qualifiers? The novel has… female characters. Anyway. I liked her most because she likes the water, and I’ve long maintained that the best people are water people. And it’s not just Anna. The novel is peppered with fantastic female characters (like her mum and aunt) who are fantastic not because they are gold star awesome people, but because they are rich and fully drawn and human.
- Historical fiction. Kind of? I mean, it’s historical fiction in that it’s set a bit during the Depression and a lot during World War Two, but it doesn’t make the history part of the historical fiction the main thing. It’s just a story that happens to take place during these time periods. Though it does brilliantly flesh out period details, and manages to encourage the reader to reflect on social changes in our current moment (as well as the limits of those changes) including the experience of women, people of colour and gay folks. All in a sort of sly way where you don’t feel like this is the thrust or point of the book. But if you must know, it’s some history of Brooklyn shipyards during the War (including the first female divers), and also about mafia money during the Depression and after.
- Sex scenes. Or scene? I don’t know. I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Let me just say Egan does what most authors are incapable of doing: she writes good sex.
- Intrigue! So it’s the same premise as Wayne Johnston’s Last Snow, First Light in that Anna’s father goes missing. But unlike Johnston, this isn’t a tunnel-vision focus on this premise. Rather there is a. lot. going on in the novel and finding out what happened to her father is just one thread. Sure, it’s a propulsive thread that keeps the pace at a clip and the reader’s investment high, but by being just one piece of the tapestry of the novel allows the reader to care more about Anna and her family and to see why resolving the question of her father is so crucial to her happiness.
I think those are sufficient reasons. I could add that it’s unquestionably some of the best writing out there. Egan was perfect in writing postmodern brilliance in A Visit from the Goon Squad and here she offers brilliant realist historical fiction. She’s firmly on the top shelf of authors and I’m only sorry it took me so long to read this one (to be fair there was a lengthy wait list at the library. So maybe reserve your copy now. And if you’re in the library business, maybe rent some more*).
*I just learned libraries rent some of their books and it was one of those things where it was obvious on learning it, but had never occurred to me before. Aka: it blew my mind.