By: Elisabeth French
Well-acclaimed novelist, journalist, and short-story writer, Jennifer Egan has done it again. Her new novel Manhattan Beach, published this October has already been long listed for the National Book Award. Egan magnifies her intelligence through her captivating and brilliant new novel. Egan has demonstrated her creativity and experimental nature most notably with her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, in which one of the chapters is made up of PowerPoint slides. However, her most recent novel is more traditional, mainly taking place in New York during World War II, featuring a young woman named Anna.
Egan presents Anna’s personal life as disjointed. The novel jumps from Anna as an 11-year-old to a decade ahead where her father’s whereabouts are unknown. She becomes the sole provider for her mother and severely disabled sister. She works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as part of the war effort. However, after watching the Navy’s divers, and an admiration for the ocean that she has had from a young age, she feels inclined to be a diver. Notably, Anna becomes the first female diver, the most threatening and selective of jobs, restoring ships to aid in the American victory. Anna exposes the rapidly developing role of a young woman in American society. One evening Anna meets Dexter Styles again, a man she met as a child while accompanying her father. Now the complexity of her father’s life starts to unravel, helping her to grasp the reasons he might have vanished.
Egan’s first historical novel highlights social climate, jumping from the early 1930s, to a decade later, where America had been profoundly transformed due to World War II. While these changes were largely industrial, the workforce inhibiting these roles had correspondingly faced drastic changes. With present day emphasis circulating the workplace environments focusing on women’s right and equality, Anna signifies the evolving social dynamic surrounding the war and the lasting effects it had on the roles of women in the workplace.
During the war, women played crucial roles both at home and in uniform. Women not only gave the men in their lives to the war effort, but also they gave their own time and energy. While men fought abroad, women worked in defense plants and volunteered at war-related organizations, all while handling their households. Particular to Anna’s work situation, was noted, “Newspapers weren’t allowed inside the Naval Yard for fear of damaging morale.” However, at the war’s end, many women were forced out of the workforce by men returning home and the decline in demand for war materials. While America required the help of women in times of crisis, the country proved unprepared for the necessary social equality for women in the workforce that would gradually come in decades succeeding.
Present day, Egan’s novel serves to represent the social inequalities which are long rooted in our history. The integration of experience derived from the social climate during World War II are flawless. While there has been distinguished improvements in the workforce since World War II, her character’s experience serves as a reminder that society should always be progressing—as her character witnesses and experiences the rapidly evolving role she must play in society while the country is thrown into war. Egan invites the reader to ponder upon the evolution of gender in the workplace.
Egan illuminates the pressures of being in the workforce for Anna through the relationship she has with her boss, Mr. Voss. Anna reveals, “He smiled, something she hadn’t seen before. It changed him, that smile, as if all the severity he displayed on the inspection floor were a hiding place from which this amiable man had just waved hello. Only his voice was the same.” Although there was a power distance between men and women in the workforce, Egan includes the emotional realm between a male boss and female employee. In doing so, she adds to the effectiveness of her delivery on the social construct in the workplace during this quickly evolving time period.
Even though Egan allows for an emotional realization about the character of Mr. Voss, Anna still has to oppress her emotions in the workplace. Egan adds while writing of Eddie Anna’s disappearance, “Had Anna felt any emotion at this disclosure, she would have concealed it.” Again, Anna’s role as a young woman in society proves to aligns with the expectations of women in the workplace.
Egan highlights social constructs surrounding World War II so effortlessly, relating to present-day issues and linking her characters through symbolism, such as the ocean. The prevalence of the ocean serves to connect Anna, her father, Eddie, and Styles. The ocean constantly appears throughout the novel with each character having intangible ties to the sight of the ocean. As intrinsically dangerous as the ocean might be, it represents the opposite landscape of the city, and delivers a promise of calmness and potential for new beginnings.