The latest book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan is quite a change from A Visit from the Goon Squad. In Manhattan Beach, the story is set in the 1930s and ´40s, during the Great Depression and WWII. Told more chronologically than the earlier book and limited to only a few points of view, there is no confusion and the story flows nicely.
The book opens when twelve-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father, Eddie, to the home of one Dexter Styles, his employer. Though Anna is relegated to playing with Styles’s children, she senses Mr. Styles is very important in the life of her family.
Not long afterwards, Eddie disappears, leaving Anna, her mother, and her extremely disabled sister, Lydia, to fend for themselves. Five years later, Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard—once the sole province of men, now a place where women can make contributions to the war effort. She runs into Mr. Styles at a nightclub, and thus begin her efforts to ascertain what happened to her father. Mr. Styles has connections to the mob, and she wants to know if her father is dead or if he simply walked away from his family.
The writing in this novel is clear and sharp. Egan flawlessly recreates New York City during this time. Obviously, much research was required, but the facts flow seamlessly within the story; nothing feels contrived. In spite of pitch-perfect writing and a noir-like mystery, there’s an odd distance between the reader and the characters. At one point in the novel, Anna must go deep diving to help repair ships for the Navy, wearing a “dress” which separates her from the water and keeps her safe. It’s almost as if the reader, too, is wearing something that keeps the characters from actually touching the heart.