Coming off of facing and conquering some “high modern literture” in the last few months, I thought I’d tackle one final member of the cheered authors of the early aughts, Jennifer Egan. For the last several months her name and this book’s cover hung out over Symphony Space around the corner, needling me to read the book. Additionally, her previous novel A Visit from the Good Squad scored a Pulitzer, so I was expecting a strong showing. I, however, was not impressed.
The Good: The book provides a story that’s enjoyable enough for a day at the beach and clearly has a lot of wonderful historical research behind it. By the end you’ll know where the elevated trains were in the Brooklyn Navy Yard region and you’ll know the smell and custom of Irish bars versus WASP-y country clubs with convincing authenticity.
The Meh: For “respected literature,” I was surprised by the count of loose threads at the book’s finish. While the “length of the book” isn’t the point, it is surprising that so many ideas were let loose to fruitfully multiply in a book about the same length of the Rules of Civility. Manhattan Beach opened (strongly!), but it rapidly began spinning off side-plots (a disabled/mystical sister; a boon for a rescue owed, but not delivered; surprisingly early sexual experimentation; “cover” marriages for homosexuals; etc.) and this didn’t stop until well after the halfway mark at which point I had the presentiment that there was no way all those plots, characterizations, and ideas could resolve intelligibly without there being weird narrative leaps and/or getting the feeling that “the author got tired of this story and wanted to end it.” And this ill-feeling was fulfilled.
Many of the reviews use the word cinematic and I agree, it’s entirely appropriate. With her superlative historical research and fast-paced plotting, I can see the screeenwriting treatments screaming to be let ouf of this novel. It would be all the better that we gain a distinctly female voice’s take on the Brooklyn from Depression to VJ-Day narratives we’ve seen countless times. In fact, in the right hands at Amazon’s A24 or Netflix and with the right amount of breathing room, a great series could be spun forth. It’s just not a great novel.
For all the book’s virtues as source material for a movie, it’s no surprise that it was wonderful as an audiobook. Once I decided that it wasn’t going to be a source of major literary revelation I cranked up the read speed and enjoyed a diverting romp.