Book Review: Manhattan Beach

Oh my goodness but this book. Which, is that how I start a lot of blog posts lately? I feel like it is. I make no apology; I’m reading some good stuff. This book is Some Good Stuff.

I read Jennifer Egan’s A Letter from the Goon Squad a few years ago (way back in 2011 thanks Goodreads) and I loved it, which, so did lots of other people because Pulitzer. I have her other work on my shelf but somehow I’ve never gotten around to reading it so when this copy of her new novel Manhattan Beach crossed my path I kind of jumped on it. All the grabby hands all the time though.
I’m so glad I did. It ticked a lot of boxes for me, this sweeping epic novel and I loved it. I mean, I’m always all about the historical fiction; if there’s a book set either in Tudor times or somewhere around WWII then there’s a fairly good chance I’m going to want to read it because I LOVE THAT STUFF but Manhattan Beach is so much more than a war story. It’s not even a war story, really which kind of makes my point redundant except not really, just hang on in there because I’ll talk sense eventually. It’s not a war story; it’s a story set partly during the Second World War and more than anything it illustrates that even when the world is gripped by war, life goes on – we all still have our own battles to fight.

Also: New York. No other city ever made me glad.

BUT WHAT IS IT ABOUT. Well. It follows the life of Anna, starting when she’s 11 as she accompanies her Dad to a visit to a New York mobster, which as openings to a book  go might be one of the strongest ever and so so effective, and flashing forward from there to the mid-40’s when the world is at war, and Anna is 19. She works at the Navy Yard but she has dreams of being a diver which is ludicrous, obvs, because diving isn’t women’s work, so there’s that story, of this tenacious young woman who is determined not to be held back. Then, there’s the whole story of her Dad and how he came to have that meeting with that mobster and what happened after, and there’s the story of the mobster himself and God but I love me a sympathetic villain, and then the story of Anna and her mum (who used to be a Ziegfeld Folly, be still my Funny Girl loving heart) and her disabled sister Lydia, and it’s all so complex and clever and interesting and all the threads of these stories are all intricately woven together and this book is a feast let me tell you.

We’ve a split narrative going on too which is most excellent– the story shifts from Anna to her dad to the mobster, Dexter Styles (I think Anna and Dexter’s stories were my faves) but all three voices are so clear and so individual that the story never loses pace and the whole thing just fascinated me from start to finish.

It’s a story with SO MUCH HEART also. You find yourself caring about every single character in this book, even the ones you feel like maybe you shouldn’t, even the ones that are secondary to the story. It’s part war story, part crime novel, part sweeping family saga and it’s excellent. It explores fractured family bonds, love and lies and betrayal and discovery and it does it all in a way that feels familiar at the same time as feeling entirely brand new and IT IS SO BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN and so detailed, so very detailed, detailed to the point that you feel it; this is not a book that you read, it’s one that you live. Egan spent a long long time researching and writing this book and it shows. This book is…I think it might turn out to be one of the greats. I loved it that much.

Manhattan Beach was published in October so you can get yourself a copy just in time for Christmas. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR.