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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A New York Times Notable Book

Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

The daring and magnificent novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.

Named One of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Esquire, Vogue, The Washington Post, The Guardian, USA TODAY, and Time

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.

‎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 once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

“A magnificent achievement, at once a suspenseful noir intrigue and a transporting work of lyrical beauty and emotional heft” (The Boston Globe), “Egan’s first foray into historical fiction makes you forget you’re reading historical fiction at all” (Elle). Manhattan Beach takes us into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men in a dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world.

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.
Pieter van Hattem

Jennifer Egan is the author of six previous books of fiction: Manhattan Beach, winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellend in 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. Her website is JenniferEgan.com.

"A bounteous miracle that makes you feel that past time, and our time, differently; everything becomes freshly energized, infused with humanity, vital, sad, and full of importance. To see the world through Egan’s eyes is to be moved, through language, to new adoration of the world. I don’t know a better writer working today. There is a generosity in her prose that is vastly enlivening to its reader and brings about that beautiful effect fiction sometimes causes: more, and better-grounded, fondness for reality, just as it is."
George Saunders

"Manhattan Beach is so rich in detail and atmosphere; such an exploration of underworlds of all kinds, filled with lessons on lifelines and buoyancy and how to bear life’s weight by diving deep into it. Jennifer Egan has masterfully conjured an era we are on the cusp of losing. Her novel is an absorbing story, beautifully written. Its strands of subtle intrigue and quiet heroism make you reluctant to leave each page while eager to get to the next."
M.L. Stedman

"A novel that deserves to join the canon of New York stories."
—Amor Towles, New York Times Book Review

“Manhattan Beach is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven.” 
—NPR's Fresh Air

“…dares to satisfy us in a way that stories of an earlier age used to.” 
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“An unusually well written, well researched, emotionally satisfying page-turner . . . Manhattan Beach is the kind of book you can immerse yourself in happily.” 
—Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

“Jennifer Egan . . . continues a string of wildly various and imaginative novels with Manhattan Beach… The thrill of her novels is in the dive to places unknown.”
—Alexandra Wolfe, Wall Street Journal

“Rich, brilliant, capacious . . . Egan has every gift a writer can possess . . . . Moving, mournful, and often profound.” 
—USA Today

“Egan’s most remarkable accomplishment yet. . . . At once a suspenseful novel of noir intrigue, a gorgeously wrought and richly allusive literary tapestry, and a transporting work of lyrical beauty and emotional heft, Manhattan Beach is a magnificent achievement.” 
Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe

“[Egan has a] talent for dazzling, specific descriptions that animate each chapter, and dialogue that rings true to her memorable characters and their era.” 
Eileen Weiner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“What Jennifer Egan gives us in Manhattan Beach . . . is good, old-fashioned writing—or old-fashioned good writing, which is something else again.”
Ellen Akins, Minneapolis Star-Tribune 

“A story of Dickensian ambition that benefits mightily from [Egan’s] meticulous attention to detail and her rich, evocative language.” 
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Manhattan Beach is… beautifully written throughout… But for an author who won literature’s highest accolade for a book based on its uniqueness, it’s perhaps even more impressive that she can also write a fantastic novel that is, at least on the surface, as classic as they come.”
—GQ

“Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan makes her maiden deep dive into historical fiction with the vivid Manhattan Beach.”
—Vanity Fair

“[Egan’s] prose moves in a way that feels effortless, a sure sign that it’s anything but. . . . It’s the best sort of historical fiction, transporting the reader to another place without ever loosing bonds of the familiar. Egan’s characters are vivid, their authenticity a kind of wonder, their losses and joys achingly true. . . . Egan sets the knot, and we are all in thrall.” 
—O, The Oprah Magazine

"Highly atmospheric... immediate... expertly written" 
Goop

“The novel’s crooked politicians, organized-crime bosses, and shady cops make it read like a fast-paced, hard-boiled drama.” 
—Marie Claire

“Exquisitely wrought.”
—Entertainment Weekly

“This truly fine novel, so rich in period and emotional atmosphere and so cunningly plotted, is a joy — one of the standouts of the year.”
Newsday

“A richly imagined portrait of a bygone era.”
Houston Chronicle

“Genuinely affecting and handsomely constructed. It moves for all the right reasons.”
—The Independent UK

“A work of remarkable cinematic scope. . . . This is a novel that will pull you in and under and carry you away on its rip tides. . . . Its resonances continue to wash over the reader long after the novel ends.”
The Guardian UK

“Intricately patterned and visionary . . . .Manhattan Beach . . . plunges into the past to discover what lies beneath the surface of our own world.” 
—The Atlantic

“Reading Manhattan Beach feels restorative . . . deeply imagined . . . [and] very, very welcome.” 
Slate

“Excellent . . . .Manhattan Beach is a fleet, sinuous epic, abounding with evocative details and felicitous metaphors . . . . [it] magnificently captures the country on the brink of triumph and triumphalism.”
Bookforum

"Ambitious, compassionate, engrossing.”
Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books

“Egan’s first foray into historical fiction makes you forget you’re reading historical fiction at all.”
Elle

“Egan’s prose is transparent and elegant. . . .But the chief joy of reading Manhattan Beach lies in diving under the surface pleasures of the plot (which are plentiful — it’s immersive and compelling), and sinking slowly to its dark and unknowable depths. There are deep truths there.” 
— Vox

“Manhattan Beach is an enthralling work of historical fiction that weaves together beautiful imagery, an immersive story, and compelling characters into a single story of family secrets and unconditional love.”
My San Antonio

“It’s an astutely executed piece of historical literature that’s also unafraid to indulge in the thrills of its rich plot.”
—Minneapolis City Pages

“Jennifer Egan does everything right as a novelist, with vivid characters and surprising enough plot twists… but she pushes all her work some notches higher with her evocation of what it feels like to be the first woman to experience the previously forbidden world of undersea divers.” 
Buffalo News

“Manhattan Beach” is an old-fashioned page-turner that more than delivers on the foreboding promise of its 'Treasure Island'-like opening set piece. The book is a Whitmanesque mosaic that truly does 'embrace multitudes.'” 
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“Tremendously assured and rich, moving from depictions of violence and crime to deep tenderness. The book’s emotional power once again demonstrates Egan’s extraordinary gifts.” 
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways...Egan does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying: apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do.” 
Kirkus (starred review)

“Egan’s propulsive, surprising, ravishing, and revelatory saga, a covertly profound page-turner that will transport and transform every reader, casts us all as divers in the deep, searching for answers, hope, and ascension.”
Booklist (starred review)

“This large, ambitious novel shows Egan at the top of her game. Anna is a true feminist heroine, and her grit and tenacity will make readers root for her.”
Library Journal (starred review)

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