I hadn't planned on reading "Manhattan Beach" by Jennifer Egan because I found her Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Visit for the Goon Squad" overhyped and forgettable, but it was on the bookclub reading list of both the Wild Detectives and the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, and so I figured, at least there will be some lively conversation about it. In the end Manhattan Beach, while not a masterpiece, is a far better book than Visit from the Goon Squad and I am glad I read it.
Manhattan Beach takes a kitchen-sink approach to plot, throwing in deep sea diving, gangsters, a missing father and a child with polio, which some readers will find just too much, since the many story lines lack depth (no pun intended given the deep sea diving theme). To me, the book most suffers from the author's apparent desire to have it turned into a movie, with very cinematographic parts about gangsters that seem lifted straight of Hollywood movies but don't add anything to the tropes. There is little exciting about watching something happen that you've seen before. Yet, cliches became cliches for a reason, and those parts will be enjoyable for those who like books and have, say, lived in certain parts of New Jersey some years ago. In its open dreams for a movie deal, Manhattan Beach reminded me of The Painter by Peter Heller, which I believe is indeed being adapted for the big screen. So I suppose the approach can bear fruit, although it tended to pull me out of the story.
On to Lydia, the child with polio. It seems that she's just there to show the father's behavior and allow the heroine, Anna, who is Lydia's older sister, to react to it - in some unfortunately expected fashion. The deep diving came out of nowhere, although I liked that the female heroine had such an unusual interest in a book set in the 1940s. It does bother me that a child with polio was inserted in a story to apparently connect Anna and Dexter Styles. There is not much explanation for why Lydia dies, although her passing away is not completely unexpected given her fragile health. She appears to be in the story to impact others but not be impacted herself. Her character is vaguely reminiscent of the disabled Kennedy child, Rosemary.
There are some good things to be said about Manhattan Beach. It is a multilayered book with a well-crafted story, a true "American novel" in the Sinclair Lewis sense. Unfortunately, the book is also full of quick decisions, sudden realizations, and epiphanies. The characters aren't developed enough, although the deep sea was a thought-provoking metaphor about diving deep into oneself. Anna's father, Eddie, comes across as Superman, saving two kids, surviving on a raft and then saving himself by escaping from concrete shoes in the water (a plot turn that stretched credibility).
The book is really the story of a relationship between father and daughter, Eddie and Anna, while to Dexter (who Eddie goes to work for because he needs money) Anna is the daughter he wished he had had, although he is later physically attracted to her. We'll guess he doesn't then view her as a daughter anymore. Dexter is killed because he has an impulse toward goodness, a fundamentally good nature that does not merge well with a gangster's occupation and comes through during a deep sea dive where he becomes convinced that his boss, Mr Q, can be persuaded to let him go legit. Dexter does have some foresight through the money laundering idea, but his naivety grows.
During that dive, Anna is really trying to find her father's body, but she only finds the watch, as well as shackles. Eddie has escaped.
Although Manhattan Beach stretches credibility many times (something regrettable for any book that isn't about magical realism), the country doesn't feel at war although the novel is set during World War II and the central character, Anna - a feminist one generation early - isn't developed enough, Jennifer Egan's sentences are at times stunning and the story, as unlikely as it is, is enjoyable enough to make the book a worthwhile read.