Manhattan Beach – by Jennifer Egan – independent book review -Historical Fiction (World War II)

Manhattan Beach is one of those novels, by an award-winning author, that lots of people are talking about. And having just finished, it, I’m not sure why. Awarded three stars on Goodreads. (Maybe it’s a New York Times bestseller because both the NYT and the book are based in New York.)

The book begins in Depression-era New York City, when the protagonist, Anna Kerrigan, is a 12-year-old girl who loves to accompany her father on his mysterious business outings. One of the men he visits is Dexter Styles, a wealthy gangster living along Manhattan Beach. A few years later, Anna’s father disappears, and, for a while, we observe the impact that event has on her mother, disabled sister, and Anna herself.

By the time World War II begins, Anna is 19 and one of the many thousands of women who wind up helping the war effort by working in at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She happens to come across Dexter Styles again. Which causes her to begin wondering what really happened to her father.

The chapters jump around, written from different characters’ perspectives. And different time frames. But my chief problem with this book is that I am not exactly sure what the book is supposed to be about. Is it about the possible crime surrounding Anna’s father’s disappearance? Is it about life for women factory workers during World War II? Is it the story of crime syndicates in New York City during this period? Perhaps it just intended to be a “period piece” showing a slice of life in New York at a moment in time. If so, it is somewhat successful, I guess.

But the first two-thirds of the book did not grab me. So much so that I considered dropping the book. Then, the last third was much more engrossing– almost, but not quite, a page-turner. And then, the end resolution felt pointless and contrived. And I found I didn’t really care much what happened to the characters.

Jennifer Egan

Maybe if you’ve read the book, you can explain what I’m missing. I’d sure appreciate understanding all the attention this novel is getting.

More about author, Jennifer Egan.