How exciting to choose a book you know nothing about and immediately love it! I had seen Manhattan Beach on display at the library where I work, and the other library book club had already read it, but I never asked my work friend what it was about. And I blindly selected it for my own book club. Talk about being a pantser!
Manhattan Beach has a 3.8 star average rating on Amazon, with over half of the reviewers giving it a 4 or 5, but the rest of the reviews are 1-3 stars. This book is a winner with most and not so much with others. Well, it’s a winner with me! It’s full of complex characters, twisting plot lines and overlaid with the conflict between doing the right thing and doing what you have to do, with heavy consequences on both sides.
Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins in 1937 with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl. In these early years, Anna has a strong bond with her father, Eddie and she shadows him on mysterious work errands. At home, her mother cares full-time for Anna’s crippled younger sister, Lydia, a source of guilt, shame, resentment and love in different measures for each of them. On one errand, Anna meets the powerful Dexter Styles and without knowing why, senses an important connection between the men.
Eight years later, Eddie is missing and Anna has a job measuring parts at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the hub of wartime repairs and preparations. And then she meets Styles again at one of his nightclubs. Determined to understand his relationship to her father, Anna sets off on a dangerous course in both her personal life and at work, where she has become the first female civilian diver. In this section, Egan includes interesting descriptions of how divers trained and worked, a dangerous activity and much different from resort dives of today!
What I liked best about Manhattan Beach is the way the author allows the reader inside the heads of her characters. I understood them much better, knowing how they made their decisions and I sometimes liked the ones with questionable morals more, because I could see their predicaments. Several of them grapple with the ethics of their work, and a few will do whatever it takes to protect their family. I particularly liked the slow reveal of Eddie’s character, who travels with many of the wrong people, but has a lifelong desire to do what’s right.
I also enjoyed the way Egan describes New York during this time period. It’s loaded with regular people, gangsters, bankers, and laborers, trying to get by in any way they can and, even when they are at cross purposes, there’s a sense of unity to win the war. Who gets by and who has the upper hand can quickly change, and that’s what kept me happily reading to the finish.
I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.
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