Review: Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
433 pages
Published by Scribner, 2017
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: Unlike Egan’s other works, I won’t be picking this one up again.

Reviewed by Pete

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s highly anticipated follow up to her Pulitzer-prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, is set in 1930s and 1940s Manhattan. It follows Anna Kerrigan, a young woman whose father mysteriously vanishes, and Dexter Styles, the mobster who has a strange link to Anna’s missing father.

The story is dense with research and carefully placed cultural references of the time, and the result is something that’s passable as historical fiction but shallow and disappointing as a Jennifer Egan novel. Manhattan Beach is certainly out of her comfort zone, but instead of being a brave adventure into new territory, it feels like a timid stroll along the beach. Egan takes no risks and offers no surprises. The story played out more or less how I expected it to, but it only reached its conclusion after several meandering paths that left me confused and bored.

I was bothered by Anna Kerrigan’s place in the story. She is a character with agency, which is always good; nothing happens in this book without her. But the other characters feel like NPCs (non-player characters) from a video game—their lives are unchanging, so when Anna calls on them for help, they are there to offer their services, and then they disappear. Anna isn’t a selfish character, but she doesn’t seem to think much about others, and she is rewarded for this way of thinking when other people have few problems of their own—at least no problems that she can help with.

I didn’t dislike the book at any point. It was fine. But the two other Egan novels I’ve read grabbed me by the throat and swung me through the air. Manhattan Beach is an experiment gone bland from an author with incredible vision.

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