Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan


Should I have included e) None of the above? Possibly… Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach was dull.

Set in New York during WWII, the story follows Anna Kerrigan, who works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Anna becomes the first female diver, repairing war ships.

Egan’s writing is perfectly serviceable. I wasn’t cringing or skimming pages but nor was I entertained. There were no sentences that I re-read for the pure joy of them, nothing to surprise or delight. It was all rather ordinary…which is quite a feat given that as well as the highly dangerous scuba diving missions, there was a war going on, there were plenty of gangsters (doing deals and disposing of bodies), there were love affairs, and there was a missing father and a disabled sister. For a plot that was so ‘busy’, I’m stumped as to why I found it boring.

In terms of the answer to the poll, I was most interested in the bits about diving, and the fact that women were working during the war at jobs that once belonged to men. But while some of the procedural information was interesting, the emotion was absent (and you know I like good writing about water – see Winton or Parrett).

She watched, spellbound, as the helpers lifted a spherical metal helmet over the diver’s head, encasing him within it. There was something primarily familiar about the diving suit – as if from a dream or a myth.

2/5 Disappointing.

I received my copy of Manhattan Beach from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Clams casino arrived, along with champagne. The waiter, a boy with a noticeable tremor (4-F, Anna thought), struggled to fill five shallow glasses.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 12): Belfast 15°-21° and Melbourne 6°-14°.

14 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I haven’t read the book but I still voted for Historical Scuba Diving Trivia because that’s probably the only time I’ll get that as an option in a poll 😀 It certainly sounds quite a feat to have so much going on & still bore you! What a let-down.

    • I was really looking forward to it as well… (Note/ confession: I still haven’t read Goon Squad and I’m not inclined to now).

      Had this book not been my book group pick, I think I would abandoned it.

      • Oh no, you should definitely read Goon Squad! I don’t know how it’s aged, but when it first came out it was so fresh and exciting and fun … thus my disappointment with Manhattan Beach. I’ve still not read anything else by her, but I believe her early novels are supposed to be good.

  3. I would agree — this was pretty lackluster historical fiction. I couldn’t understand why everyone was raving about it…I guess just because it was Jennifer Egan? I wouldn’t read anything else historical by her in the future, but I’ll go back and read her pre-Goon Squad stuff.

  4. One particuloar loose end was far too neatly tied in and I felt she couldn’t bear to jettison some of her research but I think I liked this more than you. That said, it’s nowhere near as good as Goon Squad.

    • So clearly I should still read Goon Squad!

      I got the feeling that she had an idea to set a novel around a female diver during the War but thought that wasn’t ‘enough’ so gave the character lots of ‘life’ as well. It just didn’t gel.

  5. This was pressed into my hands breathlessly by my local bookshop, and they promised me it was unrivalled. I was so disappointed, particularly after Goon Squad. And then I heard her Wheeler Centre podcast and forgave her, mostly.

  6. I wasn’t a fan of this book, either, and should have spent a moment looking up why it got so many accolades and honorary mentions by professional reviewers. I also felt like the story was just sort of flat. It had potential but missed the mark. I did think the scuba diving was interesting, though.

    • I loved the diving stuff and wish she’d written about that experience more. I also thought that all of the ship yard stuff was done well – the other women were great characters (far more interesting than the gangsters!).

  7. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer – it’s a wrap | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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