Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s eagerly awaited follow-up after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, does not disappoint.
Manhattan Beach covers themes of war, economic depression, and the cultural revolutions of the time, as it takes place in New York City in the early to mid-twentieth century,. Through the life of courageous protagonist Anna Kerrigan, Egan demonstrates the changing societal roles of women during World War II and the variety of pressures placed on women. Weaving through the lives of multiple characters, all of whom serve their own distinct roles in New York society, Egan gives a socio-economically diverse lens into the criminal culture of the era, and does so through her endlessly engaging prose.
The novel begins along Manhattan Beach at gangster Dexter Styles’s grand mansion along the water. Eric Kerrigan, Anna’s father, seems to be engaged in a dubious business venture that is cut with the innocence of their close-knit father-daughter relationship. Courageous as she faces the icy temperatures of the water, Anna demonstrates her unique tenacity in the face of obstacles, and is subsequently awarded for her spunk and rather masculine mindset.
She frequents her father’s work along the docks of New York City and keeps up with the antics of backhanded business, but is all the same a loving daughter to Agnes Kerrigan and caring sister to Lydia. Lydia, the Kerrigans’ developmentally disabled younger daughter, serves as a point of contention in Eric and Agnes’s relationship and not only drives Eric to guilt and self-hatred, but also furthers him into shady business. After the mysterious disappearance of Eric, Anna slips into a providing role for Anges and Lydia and takes a production job at the Naval Yard five years later. Determined to give a stimulating life to her sister, Anna takes Lydia to the sea, and later embarks on a mission to find her father. She does both with the help of suspicious Dexter Styles.
The novel takes on a New York identity and carries it in stride. From evoking landmarks, like the Brooklyn Bridge, to referencing specific street names and restaurants, Manhattan Beach revels in the grit of 1930s and 1940s New York as it emerged from the Jazz Age. There is a sort of cultural romanticism of wartime in America during the beginning of the twentieth century that Egan evokes in her nostalgic images of the city. However, this nostalgia is not so much a cinematic crutch, but rather a dangerous twist on the romantic freedom of the era. The lawlessness of the crime and business that occurs in the novel has perilous consequences to the Kerrigan family. Additionally, the prejudice that Anna faces in the workforce and among her peers crystallizes the biases that pervaded gender roles. Therefore, while romantic in its cultural perspective, Egan reminds her readers of the dangers and discrimination associated with it.
Involved with gangsters and Brooklyn criminals, the characters in the novel experience profound pain. While the pain of love is present in various romantic relationships, perhaps it is the pain of loss that affects these characters most. Such pain is common throughout the characters that span socio-economic classes, from rich gangster Dexter Styles in Brooklyn to the poor Kerrigan family in Manhattan.
The novel has loud feminist undertones that bring these societal pressures into a contemporary context. Anna is very much a modern woman who seems unphased by societal pressures to appear and behave in ways that are stereotypically feminine, from pinned hair to extravagant dresses to the suppression of any sort of “immoral” behavior.
Throughout the novel, Anna navigates her passion for the war cause and her desires to work as a diver with her more traditionally female roles of caring for her sister alongside her mother. While her routines are demonstrative of the working roles women fell into during the war, they are even more largely reflective of the increasing power of women. Determined always to show her worth to men, Anna fearlessly enters male-dominated spaces, whether it be the marine divers or groups of men in nightclubs. She appears to be “different” than other girls, which lends her a sort of magnetism. Men are not attracted to her beauty, but rather her courage.
While the novel jumps in time, the presence of water is constant throughout the narrative. Both incorporated into the setting and heavily symbolic, water and the sea hold a sense of escape for the novel’s principal characters. New York’s waters, which are “never the same on any two days, not if you really looked,” have different schemas for Anna, her father and Mr. Styles respectively. For Eric, it offers literal escape and a new lifestyle, while for Anna, the sea is emblematic of opportunity. Whether it is her ambitious diving career in the Naval Yard or dipping her toes in the icy water, New York’s harbors offer her power against the prejudice she faces. It is no surprise that she adamantly tells Lydia, “we’re going to see the sea” as a means of reversing Lydia’s condition and to give her new opportunities and escape.
To Dexter Styles, the water is merely in the background of his wealthy estate, the need for escape not so much pressing as it is haunting. Tumultuous and unpredictable, the sea functions as a metaphor for the novel itself.
Simultaneously bringing comfort and torment, Manhattan Beach triggers a diverse range of emotions for the reader as it does the characters. It offers a channel for personal revelation, if the characters choose to face it. It is this sense of freedom and liberation in the midst of prejudice and conflict that makes this New York City novel one that encompasses sentiments of the twentieth century and spills into our own contemporary mindset.
Victoria Horrocks is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org