Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

It's rare that you buy a book absolutely knowing that you're going to love reading it. More often than not there might actually be a slight hesitation, or even a fear that asks 'what if I hate it and I've spent £16 on the hardback version that I could have spent on a couple of Starbucks?' But when I bought Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan, I was looking for something a little different from my usual subject matter.
 Image taken with  Canon EOS 700D

Image taken with Canon EOS 700D

Actually, my first encounter with the book was in an excerpt featured in a magazine (American Vogue I think). At the time I was looking for something that would give me a break from the current slew of business advice books I was reading, but also something that would keep me enthralled. After being underwhelmed by a few books that had been touted as a MUST READ! (such as The Roanoke Girls and Girls On Fire) I was dubious when I saw that Amazon was calling Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, '2017's most anticipated book', but had to admit that the excerpt had left me curious. 

Set in Brooklyn during and after the Great Depression (hang in there, I almost gave up when I realised that too! I've never been a fan of books set during war time), the book focuses on the lives of an Irish family, in particular the eldest daughter, Anna Kerrigan. We first meet Anna when she is almost 12 years old, and still enjoying accompanying her father on his work visits, except she never really knows what his work actually entails. All she knows is that it's exciting, particularly one day, when she goes to visit one of her father's friends, Dexter Styles, at his home on Manhattan Beach. For some reason, after this trip, her father tells her to pretend it never even happened. 

Unbeknownst to Anna, her father, Eddie, had visited Dexter Styles because he was desperate for a new work opportunity; he wanted to improve the quality of life of Anna's severely disabled sister, Lydia, by buying her a wheelchair. Soon Anna's father is working for the mob, but, in time, he will wish he'd never made that decision. When Eddie disappears from Anna's life, she is completely bereft, but in some ways, she is forced to become stronger, more independent, and ends up supporting her mother and sister by working at a Naval Yard. A few years later, she becomes a diver so that she can contribute to the war effort - needless to say, a rare opportunity for a woman back then - and Anna finds out what happened to her father and why. Or at least, she thinks she does (later in the book, we find out that everything is not as it seems, and that her father has in fact been working abroad on a ship). Without giving too much away, Anna soon realises that her life is more intertwined with that of Dexter Styles' than she ever could have imagined. 

More than halfway through the book, I came to realise that the reason I was falling in love with it was because it shared that same kind of feeling you encounter when watching an old film noir. It's almost like you can smell the burning cigars and the heavy perfume in the air, only this time, the setting isn't some fancy home in the Hollywood Hills, and the leading lady isn't wearing red lipstick and furs. There's also a strong theme of the sea as a presence that is comforting and challenging at the same time, as well as a tremendous feeling of loss. Definitely one of those books that's crying out for a cinematic version, and a real MUST READ.

Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach can be found here: