He’d chanced upon his favorite hour: a premonition of dawn without any visible sign of it.
Manhattan Beach by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan is a historical Literary Fiction novel. It is a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal and was longlisted for the National Book Award. A whole bunch of fancy-pants critics really like it.
I guess I’m not fancy enough. The overriding emotion I felt while reading it was “meh.”
At the opening of a review, I usually try to describe a book in a sentence or two in an effort to answer the proverbial “What’s it about?” question. I had a hell of a time with that for this review because the book seems unsure of what it wants to BE. It’s got elements of a whole bunch of things – mystery, family, organized crime, coming-of-age, character study, trying-to-get-into-a-particularly-difficult-job-despite-institutional-prejudices-and-animosity-from-others, noir, adventure – but it never really settles on being any of them. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like some sort of brand new genre or interesting fusion of genres (although I did facetiously describe it at one point to a friend as kind of a mix of The Godfather and Little Women – but that’s not really accurate or helpful). Frankly, it feels like the author researched a lot about World War II-era New York and crafted a story around her research findings rather than using research to add details to a story. At times, it felt fetishistic, like Ready Player One but for Old New York rather instead of 1980s pop nerd culture. Therefore, I guess the most accurate, spoiler-free way I can answer the question, “What’s it about?” is to say that it follows three point-of-view characters more-or-less around New York City circa World War II.
I think Manhattan Beach would have been a stronger story if it had only focused on one character (I don’t really care which one) and settled on a particular genre. That would have served to create more mystery as well as provide some clarity into at least that character’s actions.
You see, while the three POV characters are equally compelling, they are also baffling. Characters suddenly do things that make no sense for them to do, ostensibly driven by the plot, or, even worse, explicitly-stated “daddy issues” pop psychology. The author avoids the effort of explaining these weird/stupid/wouldn’t-happen actions by shifting the POV to another character or skipping ahead in the timeline. I understand that vague reasons for a character’s actions is one of the pillars for Literary Fiction – scholarly papers, literature classes, and book clubs are founded on such uncertainties – but the writing of the characters’ actions didn’t feel complex or layered or vague. It just felt lazy.
I’m a fan of history, and the author does a fantastic job with the setting of New York during World War II. Readers interested in that time period or with an interest in the history of New York might really enjoy this book for that reason. The author’s writing style is clear and straightforward, with vivid descriptions and snappy dialogue. I just wish that it had been in service to a tighter, better overrall storyline.
My rating: 3 stars
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