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review 2017-12-27 03:27
Nostalgic for me, but a disappointing read.
Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, author; Norbert Leo Butz,‎ Heather Lind,‎ and Vincent Piazza, narrators.

The book takes place after Prohibition, but the effects of The Great Depression are everywhere. Edward Kerrigan needs work to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled. Shipping has dried up, and there is no work for longshoremen. He takes his precocious, headstrong 11 year old daughter, Anna, to a business meeting with Dexter Styles, a well known and influential gangster. The meeting is in Dexter’s home in Manhattan Beach which is an affluent area of Brooklyn, Although Styles owns legitimate nightclubs, they have secret backroom gambling casinos. He is dangerous; those who defy him disappear, but Eddie is desperate. After being introduced to Dexter, Anna plays with his children on the beach. She is impressed by the size and beauty of the house and the many luxuries and toys the children possess. 

The book then travels in time. Anna is now 19. When she was 14, her dad simply vanished from her life with no explanation. She is now working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with other young women who are doing the jobs of the men who have been called up to serve in the military. World War II is raging. A free spirit, she wants to be a diver, an occupation open only to men since the diving suit is heavy and the work is dangerous. She sets out to accomplish that goal and is ultimately successful, against all odds. Right now, her lifestyle is very simple. She and her mom take care of her handicapped sister, Lydia. When she meets a woman named Nell, she begins to push the envelope a bit and live more recklessly. She meets Dexter Styles again, but he does not recognize her and she gives him a false name. He unwittingly changes the arc of both their lives as his, Edward’s and Anna’s intersect.

The book continues to travel back and forth in time, largely through the memories and lives of Dexter, Edward and Anna. It is how secrets are revealed to the reader but not to the characters from whom they were hidden. I found the story to alternately be credible and/or contrived for several reasons. Although, I was brought up in Brooklyn, some decades after Anna, Manhattan Beach was still a place we ordinary souls only dreamt about. When one of our friends moved there, we thought his family had made it to the top. I heard many stories about gangsters. One lived a block away from me and was supposedly thrown from a window. My friend’s dad worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As a young girl of 16, I had a boyfriend in the Navy, and Tabitha Styles crush on her cousin Grady, and the description of the uniform, brought those memories back! Prospect Park was a favorite place to go rowing until it became too dangerous to go there. My family loved eating out at Lundi’s and gorging ourselves on the Shore Dinner mentioned, which was several courses of heaven followed by dessert. The Charlotte Russe was my dad’s favorite sweet treat. My aunt’s friend was a Texas Guinan dancer, and everyone wanted to be in Ziegfield’s Follies. Nightclubs were elegant and for special occasions, but off limits for most of us, unless for an organized pre-planned party of some sort. Sweet sixteens were often held at those venues. Coney Island and Steeplechase were places to simply have fun, and walking through the turning barrel at its entrance was a highlight of the experience. Ringolevio was a game played by all of us, happily, for hours, as well as stoop ball. All of these things are mentioned in the book, and for those reasons, I enjoyed it, but my experiences were out of the time zone in the book.  Therefore, I thought the story was an odd mix of historic fiction and fairy tale. It was sometimes credible and sometimes hard to believe, especially since there was no woman diver in a diving suit until 1975, more than thirty years later. In addition, I remember that girls who got into trouble were shamed mercilessly, and they disappeared. If they were in school, they had to leave. I found Anna’s reaction to her predicament a bit cavalier and unrealistic, especially for that time period. She seemed to alternate between a naïve young woman and a sophisticated adult. It seemed a bit disingenuous or schizophrenic.

All in all, the book seemed to contain a lot of extraneous information and details in an attempt to illustrate the influence of gangsters at a terrible time of history. It clearly showed the inequality of women and their lack of power and rights. Because they had little influence and were barred from so many things, they often had to make desperate decisions. Only the strong willed could survive independently. It also touched on homosexuality and racism, issues still problematic today. I don’t think this book quite measured up to her last one, “A Visit From The Goon Squad”.

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review 2017-11-28 18:38
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Egan's latest offering takes place in America during the Depression.  Twelve-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who she perceives to be important.  Anna can't help but notice the lavish house equipped with servants, toys for the children, and the pact between Styles and her father.

Years later the country is at war, Anna's father has disappeared, and she has to support her mother and disabled sister with work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Because of the war, women are allowed to work and perform jobs that were traditionally jobs for men.  She becomes the first female diver—an incredibly dangerous occupation—repairing naval ships.  Anna meets Dexter Styles at a nightclub and realizes that he is the man she visited with her father before his disappearance.  Styles has ties to the mob and Anna begins to understand the complexity of her father's life.    

The first section is smart, sharp, and brilliantly executed.  Egan's writing is solid, exactly what you would expect.  Then the novel makes one of many jumps in time and the story becomes scattered.  There is a complete lack of harmony and the reader is left with a rambling narrative that is a mash-up of three stories.  Hinging on boring at times, I didn't connect with the characters, or the plot, and this is disappointing because Egan has obviously done her homework.  

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review 2017-10-18 19:11
Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan
I absolutely loved reading this book and sharing Anna Kerrigan's life journey. A story that was set in pre-war and during World War II. It dealt with so many topics that were current at that time. Men leaving their families because they couldn't handle the fact they could not provide for them was just one. It also dealt with women doing men's jobs and the harassment that those women dealt with on a daily basis.

I really felt like I was living in that era while reading this book. The author did such a great job in so aspects with this book.

A coming of age story that, for me, was excellent, unputdownable and one that I will surely think back to 2017 and consider it one of the best reads that year.

Now, I am certainly driven to read her first major prize winning book "A Visit From the Goon Squad" a copy of which I have, but have never done so.

Thanks to Scribner and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
 
 

 

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review 2017-09-13 22:10
Historical fiction for those interested in the history of New York, women’s history during WWII, and followers of Egan’s career.
Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book (due for publication in October) that I freely chose to review.

I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a few years back and I was fascinated by its language, the stories, the way the story was told, and its inventiveness. When I saw Egan’s new book on offer at NetGalley I couldn’t resist. I have not read any of Egan’s other novels, but this one is very different from A Visit. For starters, this is a historical fiction novel. Both from the content of the novel and from the author’s acknowledgements at the end, we get a clear sense of how much research has gone into it. The novel covers a period around World War II, in New York and the surrounding area, and focuses on three stories that are interconnected, and are also connected to seafaring, the seafront, New York, and to the war era. The story goes backwards and forwards at times, sometimes through the memories of the characters, and sometimes within the same chapter, we get to see how that particular character got to that point. Although the story is narrated in the third person, we are firmly inside the character’s heads, and we can be at sea one minute, and the next at home remembering one gesture, a smile…

Anna Kerrigan is the strongest character and the one we spend more time with. We follow her story and know of her circumstances: a severely disabled sister, a father who disappears, and a mother who decides to go back to her family. Anna is a young woman, independent and determined to live her own life. She has never made peace with her father’s disappearance and remembers a strange encounter, when she accompanied her father as a child, with a man later revealed to be a gangster. Anna’s story was the one I was most interested in. Partly, because she was the character we got to know in more detail, partly because of her eagerness and determination, as she decides to become a diver and does not give up until she achieves her goal (at a time when being a woman severely limited one’s options, even during the war, when there were a few more openings, as she was already working at the Navy Yard). Her relationship with her sister, her training to become a diver (and you feel as if you were with her inside the incredibly heavy suit), and her obsession with finding out what happened to her father make her somebody to root for, although I found it difficult to engage at an emotional level with the character (it was as if she was contemplating herself at a distance and always analysing what she was doing, except for some brief moments when we get a sense of what she is feeling).

Dexter Styles is a strange character: he married a woman of the upper-class, and he has a good relationship with her father and her family, but by that point he was already involved in some shady deals and the underbelly of New York clubs and gambling joints, and he is smart, elegant, classy, but also ruthless and a gangster. I’ve read in a number of reviews that there are better books about New York gangsters of the period, and although I don’t recall having read any, I suspect that is true. I found the background of the character interesting, and his thoughts about the links between banking, politics, legal business, and illegal enterprises illuminating, but I am not sure I would say I completely got to know the character and did not feel particularly attached to it. (His relationship with Anna is a strange one. Perhaps it feels as if it was fate at work, but although I could understand to a certain extent Anna’s curiosity and attraction, Styles did not appear to be a man who’d risk everything for a fling. And yet…).

Eddie, Anna’s father, makes a surprise appearance later in the book and we get to learn something that by that point we have suspected for a while. From the reviews I’ve read, I’m probably one of the only people who enjoyed Eddie’s story, well, some parts of it. I love Melville (and the book opens with one of his quotes) and when Eddie is at sea, in the Merchant Navy, and his ship sinks, there were moments that I found truly engaging and touching. He is not a sympathetic character overall, as he takes a terribly selfish decision at one point in the book, but seems to redeem himself (or is at least trying) by the end.

This is a long book, but despite that, I felt the end was a bit rushed. We discover things that had been hidden for most of the book, several characters make life-changing decisions in quick succession, and I was not totally convinced that the decisions fitted the psychological makeup of the characters or the rest of the story, although it is a satisfying ending in many ways.

The novel’s rhythm is slow, although as I mentioned above, it seems to speed up at the end. There are jumps forward and backwards in time, that I did not find particularly difficult to follow, but it does require a degree of alertness. There are fascinating secondary characters (Nell, the bosun…), and the writing is beautifully descriptive and can make us share in the experiences of the characters at times, but I also felt it didn’t invite a full emotional engagement with them. I was not a hundred per cent sure that the separate stories interconnected seamlessly enough or fitted in together, and I suspect different readers will like some of the characters more than others, although none are totally blameless or sympathetic. An interesting book for those who love historical fiction of that period, especially those who enjoy women’s history, and I’d also recommend it to those who love seafaring adventures and/or are curious about Egan’s career. 

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