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Manhattan Beach

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Manhattan Beach includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    The long-awaited, daring, and magnificent novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her family.

    Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career with the Ziegfeld Follies, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a nightclub, she chances to meet Dexter Styles again, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

    Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world. Manhattan Beach is a spectacular novel by one of the greatest writers of our time.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. In the first chapter, on the beach, Anna walks barefoot despite the cold and says, “It only hurts at first. After a while you can’t feel anything.” Dexter admires Anna for her strength, which he senses comes from her father. He reflects that “men’s children gave them away” (pages 8–9). How does this meeting between Dexter, Ed, and Anna set the tone for the rest of the novel?

    2. Why is the thought of what Lydia “might have looked like, had she not been damaged. A beauty. Possibly more than Agnes,” (page 16) so painful to Ed? Why is he unable even to cope with Lydia, much less love her, as Anna and Agnes do?

    3. “Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one. And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper—deeper still—until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom” (page 26). What does this passage reveal about Anna? What allows, even compels, her to shift between worlds?

    4. Ed, looking back on his decision to work with Dexter, reflects that he needed a change, that “[h]e’d take danger over sorrow any day of the week” (page 34). Is Ed right to do this? Is Ed’s philosophy a noble or a selfish one?

    5. What draws Anna to Nell? And Nell to Anna? How are they each not “angels” and how does this bond them?

    6. Even at a young age, Dexter wants to know what’s beneath the surface of things. “For him, the existence of an obscure truth recessed behind an obvious one, and emanating through it allegorically, was mesmerizing” (page 91). How does this fascination shape Dexter’s life and his career?

    7. How does Anna’s sexual relationship with Leon, during which she thinks things like “I might not be here” and “This might not be me” (page 120), relate to her feeling abandoned by her father? Why does she later invoke her father as “an abstract witness to her virtue” (page 122)?

    8. Why does Anna set herself such a difficult task—becoming a diver, “breaking” the lieutenant, facing opposition at every turn? Why does she feel “that she had always wanted [an enemy]” (page 149)?

    9. Why does Lydia’s death solidify Agnes’s determination to be done with her husband, after so many years, whether he returns or not (page 179)?

    10. Leaving Charlie Voss at the club to spend the night with Dexter, Anna releases herself to the dark: “she had . . . disappeared through a crack in the night. Not a soul knew where to find her” (page 234). What do you make of her need to be lost, to be a part of the dark and its danger?

    11. Ed is simultaneously drawn to and infuriated by the bosun. Discuss why there is a push and pull between these two characters.

    12. Why does Dexter insist on diving with Anna to try to find her father’s corpse? What does this effort represent for him? What do you think he comes to understand?

    13. Visions of Lydia push Anna to not go through with her abortion. Discuss the connection between Lydia and Anna’s unborn child.

    14. When Anna takes the train west, there’s a moment when she “bolted upright. She had thought of her father. At last, she understood: This is how he did it” (page 426). What allows her to understand and perhaps reconcile with her father?

    15. Luck plays an important role throughout the novel and has particular significance for Anna, Dexter, and Ed. How does luck shape each of their lives? Good luck and bad luck?

    16. Throughout the novel, characters create new identities for themselves and start over. How do these individual stories of reinvention relate to the spirit of optimism, the quest for the new that is so common among Americans at this time?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Read a mystery novel by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, or Ellery Queen from the 1940s, as Anna does. Discuss what draws Anna to these stories.

    2. Watch some classic noir films, such as Laura or Gilda from the 1940s, or watch noir-inspired films that came later, such as On the Waterfront or Chinatown. How do their narratives and archetypes compare to those in Manhattan Beach?

    3. If you live in or near New York, explore the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center’s resources and programs at bldg92.org. Discuss what working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II might have been like.

About the Author

Jennifer Egan
Pieter van Hattem

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is the author of five previous books of fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Keep; the story collection Emerald CityLook at Me, a National Book Award Finalist; and The Invisible Circus. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerHarper's MagazineGrantaMcSweeney's, and The New York Times Magazine.

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