My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Finished: November 30, 2017
Note: I’m not trying to be coy in this review; I’m trying to describe it without spoiling the story for you.
Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad”. I read the reviews and thought the plot structure might be a little confusing so I picked up “Manhattan Beach” to become accustomed to her style.
Before World War II young Anna accompanied her father on his errands and quick meetings members of the underworld. But when he switched employers he stopped inviting her along. And then he disappeared. “How could he stay away when she was waiting so hard? She had never cried. When she’d believed he was about to return, there had been nothing to cry about, and when at last she’d stopped believing, it was too late. His absence had calcified.” [p59]
Then we find her a few years later when she is working on the New York navy docks during the war. We follow an excellent tale of her growing up and moving on after her sick sister dies and her mother leaves for Minnesota. As a single woman she is disliked by “the marrieds” at her job: “they treated her with bruised politeness, as if their husbands had whispered her name in their sleep.” [p 129] Anna is a strong willed woman who, against all odds, is determined to be a diver – in the old suits and brass helmets with air supplied from an overhead barge – to repair ships.
Eventually Anna connects with one of the men whom she visited with her father and gets closer to the secret of what happened to him. The book is a bit slow at the beginning but from this point forward is a riveting page turner full of drama and suspense.
This novel has a beautiful structure. We see foreshadowing and parallel relationships throughout. During one visit with her dad Anna helps some kids who are having a hard time putting together a train set. “They always looked [at the pieces], which was as useless when assembling things as studying a picture by touching it.” [p 5] I originally highlighted this because I loved the description but later found it was a foreshadow of her first test in a diving suit.
There is also a parallel between and exhausted Anna climbing the ladder in her diving suit and a difficulty another character had. Both found “there was just enough each time for one more [movement].” [p 359]
We also find a parallel relationship between the Third Mate on a tramp steamer and the bosun; and Anna with the Lieutenant in charge of the diving program.
It’s not all about the diving; Anna has other struggles through her efforts to find out what happened to her father. But she continues to adjust and move forward with every challenge.
This is an excellent book with great characters and a tense well-paced plot. It’s easy to see why the author won the Pulitzer Prize with her earlier work. I’ve found another seam of ore in my book mining.