I just finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. It’s a book I’ve been waiting a long time to read. She started it over 15 years ago, just after 9/11, but couldn’t finish it. In the interim, she wrote some other amazing books — The Keep and A Visit from the Good Squad. She wrote Black Box, a complete and unforgettable narrative made up of tweets. But all along, she was puzzling over what became Manhattan Beach, researching the time period — pre-war Manhattan — and revising the pages that, she says in a recent New Yorker article, made her sick to her stomach when she read them.
Egan holds herself to the highest standards. Manhattan Beach is a compelling mystery, a vividly depicted historical novel, a feminist bildungsroman. It charts the course of Anna Kerrigan, woman diver. Anna’s father, an affiliate of an underground crime network, disappears when Anna is young, and she spends her life balancing her grief and her certainty that he isn’t really gone.
The book opens on the day that Anna and her father visit a wealthy man at his home on the beach and Anna first sees the sea. Her response is to kick off her shoes and stockings, to put her feet right into the water. Like a young Edna Pontellier, Anna’s desire to dive into the unknown is a permanent fixture of her identity after that day.
Anna is ambitious to work in a time and a field where women were humored rather than appreciated. When she puts on the wetsuit that divers used to wear, to prove that she can withstand it along with the heft of the ocean, it literally and metaphorically digs into her body, pushing her down. And yet she persisted…
Anna’s sister, Lydia, is a dependent who can not care for herself. Anna and her mother bathe and clothe Lydia in the sweetest smelling soaps and prettiest clothing. They make a sort of domestic altar to her and love her as feverishly as a child loves a doll. Anna’s ambition is tethered to her family as long as Lydia is alive. Her ability to advance her dream of diving is stymied as long as she lives in her mother’s house. Interestingly, it is the other women in Anna’s life who keep her, at least at first, from achievement. Is this a part of why Egan struggled so mightily with this book? This historical accuracy is important.
Although my favorite of Egan’s books remains Look at Me, which Egan wrote before becoming famous with The Keep and A Visit, Manhattan Beach will stay with me for a long time. Anna’s relationship with ambition and her fearless exploration of the ocean’s vast territories, as well as her willingness to plunge the depths of her own heart, put her in the rarefied air of other great female protagonists. I expect to see many beach-goers reading this novel next summer, if they haven’t already read it this winter as an antidote to all kinds of cold.