Stories about women beating the odds in the bad old days of the mid-20th century always seem to find an audience. “Mad Men” was barely off the air for a year when Amazon produced the supposedly feminist “Good Girls Revolt” followed by “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” which was more about fashion than feminism. The books in this genre are published at the rate of about one a day, most of them bearing the word “girls” over an old-timey photo.
Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach,” published last year to critical acclaim, shies away from this feminized nostalgia bookshelf. It has an ambitious-sounding title and strives to be a historical novel on the grand scale. Even if you haven’t figured out that the beach in question is a neighborhood Brooklyn — just east from the more pedestrian Brighton Beach — the two words strung together create an expansive feeling. You know that you’re not going to be stuck in some boring office — or worse — a kitchen.
The novel does begin on Manhattan Beach in the 1930s, but the scale of the opening chapters is actually domestic. We’re introduced to Anna, a 12 year-old girl from a working-class family, who accompanies her father on “union” business. The two of them arrive at an imposing house with a private beach where the father talks to the “union” — or, rather mafia — boss, Dexter Styles, while Anna plays with his pampered daughter. It’s almost winter, but Anna takes off her shoes to walk on the beach barefoot.
We soon learn that Anna has a younger sister, Lydia, who is severely disabled. The girls’ mother had given up a career as a vaudeville dancer to take care of Lydia, while the father began working for Dexter Styles to pay for an expensive wheelchair.
These first chapters, as well as the beginning of the following section, jumping ahead to the 1940s, are sensitively observed and beautifully written. Egan is a talented writer who avoids descriptive clichés and place the reader in the scene. But the singular, relatable family drama that unfolds in the opening chapters is soon overshadowed by the “larger” themes to which the novel’s title seems to allude.
It is wartime and Anna works in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, measuring small ship components along with other women workers. Anna’s mother still cares for Lydia, but the father has mysteriously disappeared, leaving the three women on their own. At this point Anna emerges as the only significant point of view character. There are a few chapters written from Dexter Styles’ point of view, and another male character, but their perspectives don’t add much to the book.
Though Anna seems prim and obedient, she isn’t like other girls. When Anna sees divers working off the Navy Yard piers, she wants to be a diver too. There are no women divers, and the diving suit, called “the dress” weighs 200 pounds. Still Anna perseveres, becomes an excellent diver, and wins the men’s respect.
It’s a diverting narrative, one that reunites Anna with Dexter Styles, and leads to other adventures. Through meticulous research, Egan has been able to recreate wartime New York City in vivid detail. We learn about the different sections of the Navy Yard, work- and military uniforms, the posters that pedestrians saw on city streets. The effect isn’t dull, but after some 300 pages, I began to wonder, what is the point? What do we learn about wartime U.S. from all this accomplished, award-winning prose?
Anna faces the usual obstacles: workplace discrimination, a sexual double-standard, the generalized oppression of a more conservative time. But somehow Anna can overcome almost all these obstacles through hard work and ingenuity. A black diver named Marle apparently manages to do the same. He is the only black character and Anna — the only woman who matters in the book. The other women are stock figures who follow predictable paths.
Egan’s war is strangely abstracted and sanitized. We learn about the ships, and men going to war, but no major character dies or suffers a loss because of the war. The racism that came to the surface due to the war is absent from the story. The devastating fighting overseas is mentioned only in passing; characters speak of victories and defeats as if they were reporting the progress of a soccer match.
Despite all this lightness, I found the book rather depressing. TV shows in the genre of mid-century nostalgia like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” usually play-up postfeminist pleasures. Because these shows are set in the conservative past, viewers are given permission to enjoy attitudes and behaviors that are usually considered sexist. After watching a few episodes of “Mrs. Maisel” I was ready to put on a corset if that meant that I could also wear some of those perfectly-tailored dresses.
But “Manhattan Beach” didn’t offer many postfeminist pleasures. Anna has few dresses, doesn’t date (though she has sexual relationships) and socializes with only a few of the women. For most of the book Anna works. First at home with her mother, then along with the other women at the Navy Yard, and finally as a diver. Diving is supposed to be Anna’s calling, the work that she truly loves. But even with Egan’s careful description of the experience of diving from Anna’s point of view, diving doesn’t seem like much of a reward.
Egan insists that Anna is exceptional, perhaps as a way of explaining her success. I don’t know if a woman like her really would have been an exception in 1940. Plenty of women worked, quite a few of them in physically-demanding “masculine” jobs. What’s certain is that Anna wouldn’t have stood out in the present, where all of us have to overcome varieties of sexism only to be rewarded with a lifetime of work.
I suspect that people who’d grown up in mid-20th century New York will have a more positive response to this book. To me the most interesting and effective parts of “Manhattan Beach” were the ones that focused on the characters and the relationships between them. The passages about Anna’s relationship to her disabled sister Lydia were especially powerful.
The book is definitely a worthwhile read, but unless you have a personal connection to New York City or are a fan of historical fiction, you should approach it with moderate expectations.