This is a big, traditional historical novel — in the manner of a Ken Follett or Herman Wouk ... Like every good historical novel I've ever read, the storyline of this one is as hokey as hell and completely transporting. Manhattan Beach is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven, and it boldly helps itself to a wide library of earlier New York stories ... Manhattan Beach isn't flawless. Especially at the beginning, Egan strains to convince readers of the authenticity of her story and intrusively references too many brand names and period details: Ivory Flakes for washing, automats, the 40-cent boxed chicken lunches that Anna buys at the Navy Yard. But to focus on scattered imperfections would be like focusing on the litter of New York City streets while ignoring the wonder of the city itself. Manhattan Beach is a big gorgeous tribute to New York City and its seaport. In drawing from the classic catalog of New York stories, Manhattan Beach also takes its place among them.
...a dreadnought of a World War II-era historical novel, bristling with armaments yet intimate in tone. It’s an old-fashioned page-turner, tweaked by this witty and sophisticated writer so that you sometimes feel she has retrofitted sleek new engines inside a craft owned for too long by James Jones and Herman Wouk ... How to search for a body underwater, how to facilitate your rescue if lost and drifting at sea, how to run a nightclub, how to bribe a cop, how to care for an invalid — you learn things while reading this novel. Egan’s fiction buzzes with factual crosscurrents, casually deployed ... Egan is a generous writer. She doesn’t write dialogue, for example, so much as she writes repartee. Many writers’ books go slack when their characters open their mouths, as if dullness equals verisimilitude. Egan’s minty dialogue snaps you to attention ... If I have a complaint about Manhattan Beach, it’s that while Egan is in full command of her gifts, there’s only rarely a sense that she’s pushing herself, or us. This novel is never estranging. It never threatens to overspill its levees, or to rip us far from shore and leave us there for a while. Egan works a formidable kind of magic, however. This is a big novel that moves with agility. It’s blissfully free of rust and sepia tint. It introduces us to a memorable young woman who is, as Cathy longed to be again in Wuthering Heights, 'half savage and hardy, and free.'”
Egan deftly and movingly joins Manhattan Beach’s ostensibly very different characters with surprising parallelisms, arresting images, and an ethically capacious gaze...her characters attain a shared humanity across boundaries of race, gender, or moral code. The gangster Dexter Styles elicits as much empathic care as does the plucky, indomitable Anna ... Throughout the novel, Egan summons the sea in all its primordial allure and exploits all of water’s myriad associations and oppositions — depth and surface, buoyancy and gravity, the unconscious, cleansing, and rebirth — in a book that shimmers with poetry. At once a suspenseful novel of noir intrigue, a gorgeously wrought and richly allusive literary tapestry, and a transporting work of lyrical beauty and emotional heft, Manhattan Beach is a magnificent achievement.
A work of remarkable cinematic scope ... As a novelist, Egan possesses an unusual mix of qualities, combining a powerful social realism with poetic resonances that derive from her precise imagery and her fascination with the limitations of language. Here, she places her characters in situations that permit trenchant cultural observations, writing revealingly about the challenges of coming of age in the middle of the American century, when women’s lives were substantially circumscribed. But this novel is also metaphysical in nature: Egan’s characters are transformed by the vast ocean around them, which both hides and reveals ... Egan’s decision to withhold crucial scenes until late on ends up feeling disappointing, even if one can appreciate the reasons for her doing so...This may be a weakness of Manhattan Beach, but it comes from an admirable attempt to deploy narrative as a tool to enact – to mimic – the disruptions we experience in real life. This is a novel that will pull you in and under and carry you away on its rip tides.
All the harbor details — from the dangerous mechanics of underwater work to the irritating chauvinism of Navy officers — feel dutifully researched. The whole novel, in fact, boasts its tweedy historical accuracy...But there’s something predetermined about this story of a spunky young woman breaking through gender barriers in wartime. Far more engaging are the shadowy actions swirling around Anna. Her crafty father kept the family fed and clothed through the Depression by working for a racketeer named Dexter Styles ... Manhattan Beach may not offer the brilliant variety of forms found in Goon Squad, but Egan is still blending a jazzy range of tones in these chapters, from Tennessee Williams’s apartment-trapped despair to Herman Melville’s adventures at sea ... All these strong currents — from noir thriller to family drama to wartime adventure — eventually return to the private moment that opens Manhattan Beach. If that ending is surprisingly hopeful, it’s never false, and it dares to satisfy us in a way that stories of an earlier age used to.
...another thread uniting Egan’s novels is the unusual compression and density of her writing. The brief mini-narratives she uses to illuminate a character are so fully developed that another author might see, in each one, enough for an entire novel ... Here, as in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Look at Me, Egan opts for a panoramic and multifaceted plot divided into subplots that dovetail at critical junctures. The architecture of the novel is built on dramatic set pieces and deceptively minor details that will turn out to be important ... On land and underwater, Anna is a rare fictional creation in that she is a woman driven by desires—lust, altruism, competition, the impulse to do what the men around her insist she can’t do—without invoking the writer’s judgment ... If Manhattan Beach has flaws, perhaps they can be traced to the acknowledgments section: several pages of thanks to those who helped with the research that went into the novel. The profusion of vintage brand names, radio programs, comic strips, songs, and slang phrases can seem more than strictly necessary to provide a sense of authenticity...such moments are few in this ambitious, compassionate, engrossing book. Finishing Manhattan Beach is like being expelled from a world that—despite the horrors of the war being fought in the background, despite the occasional gangster drugged and dumped into the sea—seems more charitable and reasonable and less chaotic than the one in which we live now.
...a more traditional novel than the raucous and inventive Goon Squad, although the two books offer many of the same pleasures, including fine turns of phrase, a richly imagined environs and a restless investigation into human nature ... a central satisfaction of the novel resides in how far-flung Egan’s characters will become and what varied terrain they will explore, before being inevitably drawn back together ... Turning their backs on the crowded constraints of their urban lives, all three look to the ocean as a realm that while inherently dangerous also promises the potential for personal discovery and an almost mystical liberty. This is a novel that deserves to join the canon of New York stories.
Egan has a reputation as an authentic chronicler of the present...But veering into the past, she applies a surfeit of artifice in Manhattan Beach that erases the authenticity effects she intends ... It soon grows difficult to think of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter as characters so much as bundles of good intentions subject to vaguely Dickensian plot twists and vectors springing from Egan’s historical preoccupations. Manhattan Beach is a novel that grabs the reader by the lapels forcefully and says, 'It’s 1942, and don’t you forget it!' ... Egan is constantly trying to write her way out of the tediousness of her subject matter, whether through heightened language or by lathering on the melodrama ... The word for what Egan is up to in Manhattan Beach — the heaping on of history, metaphor, and melodrama — is craft, and it’s surely in recognition of her technical efforts that Manhattan Beach has been long-listed for the National Book Award.
Whereas her other novels invited comparisons to the postmodernists—say Don DeLillo—here we’re closer to the realm of lyrical realism, something more like a novel by Colm Tóibín that quietly works through Egan’s particular concerns. While there are breaks and loop-backs in its narrative timeline, Egan has put together a rather uncharacteristically ordinary book ... There is something wondrous about the technologies that the characters in Manhattan Beach have at their disposal. They don’t seem to carry any real costs. That, of course, is the rub. The novel so elegantly represents the past that it doesn’t have any sense of friction or edge. The social conditions are scarcely fleshed out, with little sense of how race and class shape the characters and their wartime work ... Research can be a boon to a novelist—there are more things in heaven and Earth than can be dreamt of in a single writer’s philosophy—or it can become a hindrance, a thick layer of algae that weighs down the storytelling. Egan’s wartime divers, for all their breathing apparatus, threaten to sink Manhattan Beach ... The deep sea is indeed very quiet, an oasis from all the activity on the surface, a place where the normal rules of movement, and even of breathing, don’t apply. The slow, meditative pace of Manhattan Beach was perhaps meant to mimic this, the entire book a vacation from the frantic everyday onslaught of disconnected information that Egan has usually been so eager to chronicle. But maybe that’s it: Maybe Egan, in this book, needed a break too.
These are a lot of stories to set in motion, and it takes Manhattan Beach a long time to get them running at full clip. The absence of any overriding vision tells in the novel’s dawdling middle sections. In places Ms. Egan re-creates archetypal mobster myths, reveling in all the usual gangland hokum: gats in ankle holsters, slipped mickeys, cement shoes. But elsewhere she tries to give an accurate historical representation of the Naval Yard during World War II, leading to information overloads...The prose is at loggerheads with itself in the same way. Damon Runyon-inspired slang sits awkwardly with SAT vocab words like 'invoke' and 'assuage' ... Fortunately, the novel’s exciting ending helps to compensate for its longueurs. It makes sense that Ms. Egan, with her attraction to the unfathomable, finds her groove when her story takes to the sea. Eddie’s ship is torpedoed by a U-boat and the suspenseful pages dramatizing his trials on the open ocean are almost worth the book’s price tag on their own.
[Egan] brilliantly reinvigorates familiar conventions. Manhattan Beach is a fleet, sinuous epic, abounding with evocative details, felicitous metaphors, and crystalline historical assessments ... In some of the most searing sections of Manhattan Beach, Egan details Anna’s appetites—for sex, for a seemingly impossible career—and the blunt stupidity that thwarts her or demands her silence ... Egan seamlessly zooms out and in throughout Manhattan Beach, a novel that magnificently captures this country on the brink of triumph and triumphalism, its ideology contingent on the vigorous enforcement of its various caste systems.
Egan builds her story with the countless particulars of her chosen era — America at war, Americans at nightclubs, gangsters and sailors and union workers all fighting for a slice of a diminished post-Depression pie. She percolates the story with Flossie Flirt dolls, a '28 Duesenberg Model J (Niagara blue), the charitable ladies of the New York Catholic Protectory, Benny Goodman-style swing, and such a profusion of details regarding big-ship construction and underwater repair that you'd expect to be just slightly inclined to read a little faster through those pages, but you are not. Egan makes dressing for a dive a matter of high suspense and metaphor ... Manhattan Beach is a whole story sprung from a whole imagination. It yields a world that, with all its mystery, its shades of dark and light, its yearnings and its satisfactions, feels most resplendently true.
...a rich, brilliant, capacious historical novel ... Egan has every gift a writer can possess, and like all of her work Manhattan Beach is radiant with intelligence, special simply because it’s by her ... Manhattan Beach is, radically, a book without radical impulse. An ironist might be suspicious of its concerns: parting, loss, family, war. But perhaps it’s mostly young novelists who burn to remake the world. Egan, at 55, has turned her virtuosic skills toward recapturing it. The result is moving, mournful, and often profound.
Along the way, we occasionally lose sight of Anna; hiding from those around her, she also hides from us. We don’t always know what makes her tick or why she chooses — often spontaneously and desperately — as she does. These narrative holes our deliberate; Egan won’t let her heroine be pinned down and classified. That, after all, is what others have been doing to Anna all her life ... time bends are a modest variation on the dramatic temporal shifts in Goon Squad; they’re also true to Egan’s abiding sense — reflected in so much of her fiction — that ghosts from the past always linger, collapsing time while haunting us.
Much of what these characters think and do seems more explained than felt — and yet they’re real enough to be moving. Much of what we see and hear — in a cramped apartment or the shipyard, at a nightclub or aboard ship — seems awash in particulars for the sake of verisimilitude, and yet it is convincing enough to take us where we’re supposed to be. It is when we come to the sea, 'an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, or wax; hammered silver; wrinkled flesh,' that artifice and experience invariably merge, and we witness the full reach of Egan’s writing. 'The strange, violent, beautiful sea. … It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn over a mystery.'
Simple doesn't necessarily mean inferior, of course. An old-fashioned story can provide as much room for creativity as an experimental work. The good news is that Egan, despite a few lapses, has met the challenge. If Manhattan Beach isn't as thrilling or doesn't feel as effortless as some of her earlier efforts, it's still a richly imagined portrait of a bygone era, and a sly commentary on the racism and sexism of an earlier generation ... Egan wears her research too heavily in this opening, as she does occasionally throughout the novel. The abundance of historical detail and brand name references gives the impression that she may have been less sure of her material, at least at the outset, than she has been in other novels. Fortunately, the novel gains assurance when Egan shifts to the years of America's involvement in World War II ... If some of the more romantic elements of Manhattan Beach skirt the edge of soap opera, Egan's storytelling prowess still makes this an entertaining read. As Egan proves, sometimes the most unorthodox act an author can perform is to write a seemingly conventional novel about characters we've seen before and point out the preconceptions that they, and we, may have taken for granted.
The new novel is fairly straightforward in construction but superbly devious in plot — its characters time and again blind to the true nature of the situations in which they find themselves ... The novel is a great exercise in storytelling might, throwing out two buttressing tales ... Egan’s extraordinary virtuosity of description and power of evoking a historical milieu are on display throughout Manhattan Beach, which is alive with fully realized, brilliantly rendered characters; even minor players are picked out in unforgettable detail ... this truly fine novel, so rich in period and emotional atmosphere and so cunningly plotted, is a joy (and a terror) — one of the standouts of the year.
Like Dennis Lehane, Egan has combined insightful historical fiction with emotionally rich crime fiction to create a riveting and provocative investigation into the human condition. For all her keen attunement to social metamorphosis, what is most engrossing is Egan’s charting of the psychological eddies and storms that shape her irresistibly stubborn, risk-seeking characters ... Ultimately, Egan’s propulsive, surprising, ravishing, and revelatory saga, a covertly profound page-turner that will transport and transform every reader, casts us all as divers in the deep, searching for answers, hope, and ascension.
Power, and especially the gendered nature of it, is central to Jennifer Egan’s fifth novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s first and foremost a deeply researched historical novel about mobsters, sailors, and shipbuilders during World War II, which arguably makes it Egan’s most conventional work … But the new novel’s meticulousness about battleships in Brooklyn and nightclubs in Manhattan shouldn’t obscure the fact that Egan is still playing with form. She’s just doing it in the hulls and keels — she’s just using the structure of the historical novel to shake up the good-girl-done-good story … Manhattan Beach has plenty of adventure-survival-danger, too, especially in an extended set piece featuring the wreck of a merchant marine boat and the survivors’ agonizing wait for rescue. What intensifies that drama, though, is Egan’s sense of how the different paths that are cleared for men and blocked for women lead to such predicaments.
...while her new novel may be less technically innovative, it is an unusually well written, well researched, emotionally satisfying page-turner — which demonstrates that the power of her work lies beyond virtuosic literary stunts ... this action-packed novel is driven as much by plot as by character, feminist undercurrents, careful details and lush prose. As the thrills zip by in rapid succession — a send-up of a mob boss’ doublespeak, risky sex and riskier dives, gangster rub-outs, German U-boats, torpedo strikes, shark attacks and a shipwreck that leaves squabbling merchant mariners adrift on a raft in the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles off the African coast — some of them strain credulity. But Egan certainly knows how to build tension, and her novel has the makings of a terrific action adventure movie. Manhattan Beach is the kind of book you can immerse yourself in happily, with no special equipment to encumber you.
Throughout the book, Egan’s prose is as smooth and understated as her structuring: it draws absolutely no attention to itself, but there are almost no false notes. It’s windowpane prose, transparent and elegant. Some readers, I should note, will likely take issue with the figure of Lydia, who is a disabled character with almost no interiority, and who exists primarily to serve the character arcs of her family members. It’s a rare piece of clumsy plotting from Egan, who usually knows better than to reduce people to symbols. But the chief joy of reading Manhattan Beach lies in diving under the surface pleasures of the plot (which are plentiful — it’s immersive and compelling), and sinking slowly to its dark and unknowable depths. There are deep truths there, if you can find them.
Manhattan Beach is sober, even staid, a historical novel set in World War II–era New York City. It’s delivered not in the sparkly, fast-acting fragments of mass and digital culture—the fictional equivalent of espresso shots—but in long, deep draughts like tall glasses of ice water … Manhattan Beach is not especially original. Originality itself is often overrated. The novel is more deeply imagined than most historical fiction; Egan summons the material and social texture of 1940s New York, from the cosmetics to the food to the sounds and smells of street and apartment and merchant marine life, so completely that the world of the novel closes over its reader’s head like the waters of Wallabout Bay engulfing Anna on her first dive.
Egan writes with great skill and illustrative power. Particularly beautiful are her descriptions of the sea and its mesmerizing effects on her characters. In her afterword, Egan describes the vast amount of research she did on the World War II-era Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it shows. Her portrayals of life in the yard and the perils and mechanics of the work of divers are marvels to behold.
Everything leads up to a flurry of incident, which has its own satisfactions, but a lot of the pleasure comes from the ease and authority with which Egan inhabits the three principal characters, offering them complex inner lives while animating a social world in which a woman’s life could be derailed by a smudge on her 'reputation' and a man could be judged by the way he wore his hat ... Egan’s natural voice as a writer is pretty eloquent, which sometimes leads to problems of register ... And sometimes you get glimpses of the immense effort it must have taken to bring Egan’s disparate bodies of research ... Most of the time, though, it’s flawlessly done, with enough of a spin on the usual historical-novel tropes to make the whole enterprise seem surprisingly fresh.
Manhattan Beach widens into a fascinating portrait of this legendary war-time shipyard, where thousands of workers strained to build and launch the destroyers that could beat back the German U-boats. For the first time, women joined the industrial effort, working side by side with men in jobs they had never been allowed to hold. They stand in long lines to give blood, they buy boxed lunches at the canteen for forty cents, and they labor behind gloves and face shields … Egan thoroughly details the mob subculture, with its bone-deep ‘Wops’ versus ‘Micks’ hatreds, and although this is familiar material from movies, she makes it sting when it counts. The more Anna wants to know about her father, the more she has to be willing to get close to ugly sources of (male) power.
On the surface, it appears to be a traditionally written historical novel about the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s with crime, deceit, and vengeance at its core. But the novel is about anything but surfaces. It’s a novel of and about depths. Depths of relationships, depths of despair, and actual watery depths. Its background is the war abroad; its foreground is the war at home … Manhattan Beach is at times surprising. It provides a reading experience like no other. It does not disappoint. Ultimately, its finest achievement is that it proves irrefutably that a woman’s place is in the work place – or wherever it is that she wants to be.
The Atlantic and Indian oceans play significant roles in a novel saturated by the sense of water as a vehicle of destiny and a symbol of continuity (epigraph by Melville, naturally). A fatal outcome for one appealing protagonist is balanced by Shakespearean reconciliation and renewal for others in a tender, haunting conclusion. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying: apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do.
As the stories eddy through time, Egan makes haunting use of shore and water motifs to balance dense period detail and explore the liminal spaces—between strength and weakness, depth and surface, past and future, life and death—through which her protagonists move. More straightforwardly narrated than some of Egan's earlier work, including the celebrated A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel is tremendously assured and rich, moving from depictions of violence and crime to deep tenderness. The book's emotional power once again demonstrates Egan's extraordinary gifts.
This expansive book is a deeply researched historical novel set in the 1930s and ’40s, told as a conventional narrative, sampling several genres along the way. The book is at once a gangster story, a mystery, a study of class and manners, a tour of the Brooklyn Naval Yard, rich with details of shipbuilding and the history of deep-sea diving techniques, a glimpse into the tough lives of merchant seamen, a thrilling tale of terror and rescue at sea on the Indian Ocean, and a commentary on the transformative effects of wartime on gender roles … The novel is saturated with water and maritime images and facts, starting with an epigraph by Melville, ending in a fog-shrouded final, tender scene, and everywhere in between.
Egan fondly, unironically re-creates midcentury New York, populating the West Side docks with tough-talking Irishmen, a Brooklyn tenement with struggling immigrants, a nightclub with dandies and gangsters, and Sutton Place with patricians … What Manhattan Beach doesn’t have is the original style and lively humor that animated Egan’s previous novels...It lacks the spark and the quiddity of her previous work. It’s as if she couldn’t bear to subject the historical past to the same scrutiny as the present. The warm heart is here, but it’s less engaging without the cold, honest eye.
There are at least three or four Great American Novels pressed between the pages of Manhattan Beach: moody gangster noir; sweeping WWII romance; classic New York immigrants’ tale; timeless story of the sea … Fans who fell in love with Goon Squad’s tricky brilliance might find the narrative here almost too familiar; some moments channel the hard-bitten prose of Raymond Chandler, others the sea-dog flintiness of Hemingway. (Egan’s period research is impeccable, even if it sometimes distracts as much as it illuminates.)