2. Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (2017) (3/12/18)
I picked up Manhattan Beach having greatly enjoyed Jennifer Egan's last book, A Visit from the Goon Squad—and as various other reviewers experienced, I found myself puzzled by the difference between the two books but also, equally, impressed by the stylish, elegant, versatile prose. And oh my, the research, which was exhaustive (if at times also exhausting). I learned about all sorts of things: industrial diving, civilian life in WWII New York, gangsterism, the merchant marine and surviving a shipwreck, caring for an invalid, the posh ways of the upper class, and much much more.
I also enjoyed the complexity of the characters, as well as of the plot, which involves the protagonist, Anna, whose father disappears when she's young. As she reaches adulthood, she gains employment in the war effort, ultimately becoming one of the first female divers, working to repair ships. The book is difficult to summarize because it's not especially plot driven, and the timeline and POV switch up frequently.
As a result, it took me until about halfway in to really feel engaged. It's a slow-moving story, with a lot of interiority. That's not a bad thing at all, but I needed to slow into it myself. I was frequently on the verge of quitting in order to take up a fast-paced mystery, but the beauty of the writing kept me going.
Here are a couple of passages I flagged as I went, but really every page has some gem or other:
Anna laughed. In fact, her dress—hidden under her coat—was not all that bad. When she'd told her mother that a girlfriend from the Naval Yard had invited her to the pictures but presumed her clothes would be dreadful, her mother had plunged into a frenzy of outraged alteration, adding shoulder pads and a peplum to a plain blue dress Anna had bought at S. Klein for Lydia's upcoming doctor visit. At the same time Anna had stitched a spray of turquoise beads onto the collar, hands flying alongside her mother's as if they were playing a duet. No one who really knew clothes would be fooled by these enhancements, but their sewing wasn't meant for scrutiny. As Pearl Gratzky liked to say, rather grandly, "We work in the realm of the impression."
* * * *
After midnight, when Eddie was relieved by Farmingdale . . . , he found Wyckoff, the naval ensign, waiting outside his stateroom with a bottle of wine. "We'll drink it outdoors," he said. "It's a perfect night. Where you drink wine matters as much as the wine itself."
They sat on the number two hatch cover. The night was cool and clear, a rolling sea just visible under a paring of moon. Eddie couldn't see the ships around them, but he perceived their density, five hundred feet away fore and aft, a thousand feet abeam, all nosing together through the swells like a spectral herd. Eddie heard the cork leaving Wyckoff's bottle, caught a tart, woody smell of the wine. The ensign poured a modest amount into two enameled cups. "Don't drink it yet," he cautioned as Eddie lifted his. "Let it breathe."
The Southern Cross hung near the horizon. Eddie preferred the southern sky; it was brighter, denser with planets.
"All right. Now," Wyckoff said after several minutes. "Take a sip and move it around your mouth before you swallow."
It sounded loopy, but Eddie did as instructed. At first there was just the ashy pucker he'd always disliked in wine, but that flavor yielded to an appealing overripeness, even a suggestion of decay. "Better," he said with surprise.
They drank and looked at the stars. After the war, Wyckoff said, he hoped to find a job planing grapes in the valleys north of San Francisco. There had been vineyards there, but the dry agents had burned them during Prohibition.
"What about you, Third?" he asked. "What will you do after the war?"
Eddie knew what he wanted to say, but waited several moments to be sure. "I'll go back home to New York," he said. "I've a daughter there."
"What's her name?"
These syllables, which Eddie hadn't uttered aloud in years, seemed to crash together like a pair of cymbals, leaving behind a ringing echo. Abashed, he looked away. But as the seconds passed without reaction from Wyckoff, Eddie realized how unremarkable his disclosure was. Nowadays, most men on ships had left other lives behind. The war had made him ordinary.