This novel should have been an easy like for me. Set in New York during the pre-war and WWII period, Manhattan Beach explores women’s factory work, the dangerous world of diving, and the merchant marine. It also involves a mystery — that of the missing father. The problems for me involve both character and plot development. At the end, I was wondering why characters behaved as they did and why the significance of their actions was not better explained.
The central character of Manhattan Beach is Anna Kerrigan, whom we meet as an 11-year-old in 1934 and then get to know better as a 20-year-old working at the Naval Shipyard in 1942-43. As a child, Anna was very close to her father Eddie Kerrigan. Eddie worked for the dock workers union, which seems to have been a front for organized crime. Eddie’s skill set involves an excellent memory, an eye/ear for detail, and an ability to fade into the background. He often worked as a messenger/mule for the union boss, Dunellen, who has known Eddie since childhood. Eddie took Anna along with him on jobs until she was old enough that her presence became problematic for him. One of the last trips they took together was to Dexter Styles’ fashionable home at Manhattan Beach. The nature of Eddie’s work changed after that trip, as did his relationship with Anna, who resented being left behind.
The novel then jumps ahead to 1942/43. Eddie has been gone for 5 years. It isn’t clear if he is dead or alive. Anna has dropped out of college to help with the war effort, measuring and sorting small ship parts at the Naval Yard. While working there, two important things happen that will change her life. First, she sees men in the harbor gearing up to do dives and repair ships. Word has it that the Navy needs civilian volunteers to help with this work and they have trouble finding suitable candidates. Anna decides that she needs to dive and works tirelessly to get accepted into the program. The second thing that happens is that she meets Dexter Styles again. He does not recognize her and Anna provides a false name in the event that he would recognize the name Kerrigan. She hopes to find out what happened to her dad and works on getting to know Styles better.
One of the strong points of the novel is the description of both the diving program and the sexism that Anna faced in trying to enroll in it. The Navy lieutenant who runs it strings her along, with apparently no intention of ever letting her in. The diving itself sounds terrifying, with much description provided of the heavy suit, the dangers related to breathing, and the isolation of the diver once in the water. It takes a special kind of person to do this job, and eventually Anna works her way in with a little help and a lot of respect from a couple of fellow divers. The descriptions of factory work for women and their free time activities are also interesting and provide a snapshot of New York City’s nightlife during wartime. It is at the Moonshine Club that Anna sees Dexter Styles again. Styles owns and runs a number of clubs and roadhouses, and he is tied to the “Syndicate,” i.e., the mob. His “boss” is an old Godfather type name Mr. Q and his father-in-law is a wealthy, connected society man. This allows Styles to straddle two worlds of influence and power. Styles is a smart and successful businessman, respected by his boss and father-in-law, until he isn’t. That’s one of the problems I have with this story — the reason for his fall from grace is not clear to me but it seems to have to do with Eddie. The nature of Eddie’s work for Styles is explained later in the book, but the specifics of the disintegration of their relationship are not.
A number of character interactions in this novel bothered me. First, the relationship between Styles and Eddie, even when known to Anna, seems to have little to no impact on her interactions with Styles, which seems weird and implausible. Second, the way Eddie treats his younger daughter Lydia is extraordinarily problematic for me. Lydia is stunningly beautiful and disabled. She might have Cerebral Palsy but no diagnosis is given. Lydia spends her life mostly bedridden and unable to speak much. She is an object of pity, loved by her mother and sister, but she seems to make her father angry. The fact of her existence bothers him and in one very troubling scene, he almost smothers her to death. Lydia’s presence in this book and the way disability is presented through her really bother me. On one hand, Egan shows how hard it was to get any kind of help for Lydia and how important it was to give her experiences outside the room where she lived. On the other hand, Lydia’s presence in the novel seems to be to act as a conscience for the characters who interact with her. She ennobles them because she is an opportunity for them to be selfless or learn a lesson or something.
This is a very readable novel. Egan is a talented writer, and I found myself drawn in and wanting to see what was going to happen. Yet, ultimately I was disappointed with the story and its characters.