A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s literary merits are well established. I haven’t read A Visit From the Goon Squad yet, but as a result of my introduction to Egan via her latest novel Manhattan Beach, I understand the accolade and I’ve added A Visit From the Goon Squad to my short list. A sprawling time capsule circa New York City World War II, Manhattan Beach illustrates, intentionally or not, one of the greatest ironies of the period. For a brief few years, as a result of utter necessity, American society was provided a short glimpse of the future: relative gender equality in the workplace. Full of mobsters and shills, floozies and confidence men, scoundrels and New York elite, Manhattan Beach has all the makings of a magnificent historical novel.
Young Anna Kerrigan lives with her mother and physically handicapped sister in a small apartment in New York with war raging across the seas and the shipyard teeming with military activity. Unwilling to be boxed in by acceptable social mores, Anna wants to become the first female diver to work on the ships in the naval yard. Tough, smart, and striking, Anna cuts a sharp figure throughout the novel, constantly pushing the envelope even when the odds seem insurmountable. Anna often chooses necessity over social opprobrium. Covered by the seemingly innocent shield of a single twenty-year-old woman, Anna constantly surprises and consternates the powerful figures she must convince, or coerce, into giving her what she wants.
As the desires of adulthood claw at her conscience, forcing her to make decisions that will only disappoint those she loves and driven by the need to find out what happened to her father who disappeared when she was thirteen, Anna will stop at nothing to get the answers she so desperately wants. But there’s always a price to pay when we make concessions with morality. Will the price be too steep for Anna? Full of historical glitz and glamour, Egan’s Manhattan Beach underscores the third law of physics, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”