For the most part, Manhattan Beach focuses on New York City life during World War II: separated families, economic strain, and a new status for women as the hardworking breadwinner. But as the story stretches out from the central view of a struggling family, two other stories emerge that are so massive, their sheer gravity takes away from the central story leaving the reader feeling disconnected. Scribner | Hardcover | October, 2017 | 438 pp
Anna Kerrigan in a young girl who loves her father and she is with him when they meet Dexter Styles, a night club owner, at his fantastic beach house. They have a tough life. Her sister has a mysterious illness that has left her seriously disabled and they need a special wheelchair for her. Her mother does what she can for extra work and her father is just scraping by. A man like Dexter Styles could bring him new opportunity. And he does – for a while, but he also stops bringing Anna out and about with him. One day, he vanishes. He never comes home again.
Several years later, America is entrenched in the war and it falls to women to fill the jobs in the factories supplying the military. Anna is older and has taken a job in the naval shipyard along with many other women. She does well and wins the attention of her male superior, which also makes her a target of suspicious scrutiny from her peers. But excelling here is not her goal. She wants to be a diver like the men she saw suited up on the piers, wearing those fantastic looking suits. With a special reference, she earns a slot testing out for the program which had never before allowed a woman.
While navigating the trenches of a male dominated field and the unsurprising obstacles thrown at (only) her, she bumps into someone from her past. Dexter Styles, the fabulously wealthy man who knew her father. She knows he had something to do with her father’s disappearance, but also deals with a deep attraction to this man. A disturbing father-figure attraction with the man who might have murdered her real father.
There are a number of big ideas and stories happening in Manhattan Beach: a family’s struggle, a family’s loss, World War II, new roles for women, new freedom for women, New York mafia, clubs and crime, Italians versus the Irish, a woman’s fight to become a Navy yard diver, and a massive veering off into Navy battles on the high seas. It felt as if a few of these stories deserved singular attention and because of that, the story as a whole didn’t blend well. My other critique is with historical fiction accuracy. Although I terribly want to believe that a woman could have been allowed into a diving program during the WWII era, it never would have happened. Never. It wasn’t until 1970 when the first black man, Carl Brashear, became a Navy diver – thirty years later! And it must be said that the diving scenes in Manhattan Beach too closely mimic the scenes in Men of Honor, the story of Carl Brashear, replacing the black struggle with a female one.
This read is a struggle. But there are plenty of tantalizing moments that will push you through, especially the writing. The constant theme of water and resurrection, for lack of a better word, does work to tie things in a little more.