A third of the way through Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach, a young woman named Anna Kerrigan enlists Dexter Styles, a charismatic nightclub owner and racketeer, to drive her and her severely disabled sister, Lydia, to the seashore at the edge of Brooklyn. Lydia, who cannot walk or feed herself, and who rarely leaves her family’s cramped apartment, has never seen the ocean, and Anna allows herself to hope that the experience might arrest her sister’s decline and jolt her out of her growing detachment from the loving domestic life around her. Dexter’s palatial house abuts a private beach, and he and Anna carry Lydia, swaddled in an imported blanket from his linen closet and propped up in a specially designed chair, to the edge of the water. It’s 1942, and in the distance a passenger ship sails by, presumably transporting troops to Europe.
Dexter owns several popular clubs and illegal casinos around New York City. As he and Anna chat about his profitable involvement in the war effort—“keeping the brass amused and easing the pain of rationing”—Lydia’s eyes blink open, and she begins to babble. “The change in the crippled girl was extraordinary. He’d found her sprawled unconscious, as if she’d been dropped from a height, but now she sat up independently, holding her head away from the stand.” Lydia’s awakening is so affecting that only later do we realize what a challenge it must have been for the writer to make it not only dramatic but plausible and persuasive.
It couldn’t have been easy, arranging for the salt air and pounding surf to work a near miracle, to make a mute girl speak, or almost speak, and not send the story plummeting into bathos. Egan succeeds with a combination of psychological acuity and technical virtuosity: she complicates the scene at the beach so that Lydia’s remission—which, we sense, will be limited and brief—is only one of the things holding our attention. We’re equally, if not more, engaged by the motives and secrets that have brought Anna and Dexter to this stretch of sand. Events—and their consequences—conspire to reveal what the characters don’t know about one another and about themselves, what they are willing to admit and what they would rather keep hidden.
Dexter is unaware, for example, that he and Anna have met before. When she was eleven, her father, Eddie, took her to play with Dexter’s daughter on this same beach while the two men talked business. Anna’s response to that visit, and to her own first sight of the ocean, will resonate eerily throughout the novel:
Anna watched the sea. There was a feeling she had, standing at its edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all that water should suddenly vanish? A landscape of lost objects:…
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