By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)
The plot of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel Manhattan Beach is straightforward enough: Anna Kerrigan, an adolescent girl in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, struggles with a dysfunctional family to find her place in the world.
The characters are sufficiently intriguing: the father, Ed Kerrigan, is a union bagman, once relatively wealthy, who lost it all during the stock market crash; her mother, Agnes, transfers her love, loyalty and care to Anna’s sister, Lydia, who suffers from a catastrophic birth defect that leaves her unable to talk, sit up, or care for herself.
But the characters all knowingly or unwittingly revolve around the mysterious Dexter Styles, a wealthy, high-society gangster and nightclub owner. Once Anna’s father crosses paths with him, he disappears, leaving the family in disarray, spiraling into dissolution. And Anna becomes fixated with Styles as the plot jumps to the World War II years.
Anna takes a job at the Naval Yard in Brooklyn, frequenting Styles’ nightclub. The plot transforms into a growing-of-age novel, with the mystery of her father’s death lurking ever present. She finds love, she finds happiness, she finds loss.
Anna is endearing as a resourceful individual who is strong-willed but vulnerable to her own self-doubts and the formidable barriers of living in a paternalistic man’s world.
Egan’s art is her ability to capture complex emotions, leading toward mysteries and unexpected turns, like life itself, that at the end leave us ravenous for more.
The underlying power of Beach is its ability to relate on a subconscious level. Anna’s sister Lydia, for example, is a cipher for incomprehensible beauty, of wishes and dreams that are too beautiful—and flawed—for this world.
Her mother, Agnes, fawns on her; Anna holds her as close as a talisman. “A vibration seemed to emanate from inside Lydia, as if she were a radio tuned to a distant frequency. She knew all of Anna’s secrets; Anna had dropped them in her ears like coins in a well.”
Indeed, she is a goddess as well as a curse. All who come into contact with Lydia either adore her or despise her, not seeing her as she is, but as their own best or worst reflections.
But Lydia is only one of many beguiling characters that constantly raise questions, potential problems, solutions, or disappointments, like those we find in our daily lives.
Egan is a highly accomplished author of four previous novels and has won a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. Beach doesn’t disappoint.
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.