As a writing instructor, the problem with starting a book right after Thanksgiving is that there are so many other texts competing for your attention—revised drafts of analytical essays, annotated bibliographies, and thanks to my class for new writing center tutors, lots of wonderful reflections and projects. As a result, though I was sucked into the story of Jennifer Egan’s new novel right from page one, it took me awhile to get through it. I actually used it as motivation—read and respond to five essays and then you get a 15-minute reading break.
This novel seems a radical shift from A Visit from the Goon Squad which I read a few years back. Set in New York City before and during World War 2, it touches on everything from the changing dynamics of the criminal underworld to the changing roles of women. The focal point is Anna Kerrigan, who as the novel opens, is 12 years old and accompanying her father, Eddie, on an errand to the beachfront house of Dexter Styles, whose relationship to her father Anna doesn’t understand but she senses is important. There is a moment involving Anna and the ocean that seems small but the theme of water and the sea loom large in this novel—in ways both expected and surprising.
Years later, as the war rages, Anna is working at the Brooklyn Naval yard and helping her mother tend to her disabled sister, Lydia. Her father, Eddie, ran off several years before leaving the Kerrigan women to fend for themselves. However, a chance visit to a nightclub leads Anna to encounter Dexter Styles again, who she now recognizes as a gangster, though of a subtler kind. Styles does not connect this independent and scrappy young woman with Eddie Kerrigan, a man he employed and eventually made disappear. Anna doesn’t mean to keep her identity a secret yet she ends up doing so even as her path continues to overlap again and again with the gangster. Even more interesting is that Anna decides to pursue an opportunity to be a diver for the shipyard—doing underwater repairs on the naval ships. She is a natural under the water but it takes a lot of work and luck for her to prove it since she is the first woman on the East Coast to take up this line of work.
There is so much going on in this novel and even though Anna is the core, Egan also focuses on Dexter Styles and Eddie Kerrigan and there are some interesting parallels between the two men’s attempts to do more and be more—variations on the American Dream. There’s a lot to chew on when the story ends and my admiration for Jennifer Egan’s writing has only grown.