Events | 16 May 2018

Not Your Typical Wartime Novel: THI Welcomes Jennifer Egan to Santa Cruz

By Sarah Papazoglakis


The Humanities Institute is pleased to join Bookshop Santa Cruz and KAZU 90.3 to welcome Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jennifer Egan to Santa Cruz to read, discuss, and sign her new book, Manhattan Beach, on Thursday evening, June 7. This studious, intimate portrayal of 1942 is not your typical wartime novel. The New Yorker notes that Jennifer Egan spent 15 years researching and working on Manhattan Beach. Speaking with NPR, Egan herself remarks that she almost abandoned the book at a point when she felt it impossible to “time travel” in order to finish writing it.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about the book and the author’s journey to complete it. Tickets are still available and include a paperback copy of the book.

In advance of Egan’s reading, we invited UC Santa Cruz Literature PhD Student and THI Fellow, Sarah Papazoglakis to respond to the book. What follows is a capsule analysis and close reading from Papazoglakis.


Manhattan Beach (2017) can be read as a quintessential father-daughter story with a twist. The story begins and ends with Anna Kerrigan and her father standing at the water’s edge. The scene repeats, but with many differences. In the opening scene, we find her challenging her father’s authority as an 11-year-old. In this moment and in several other moments throughout the novel, she waits for a slap in the face—real and metaphorical—in response to such unflinching confrontations with male power. By the end of the novel, one critical difference in the parallel scenes is the notable shift in power relations between men and women that Anna effectuates in her everyday interactions. She ultimately achieves an incredible level of authority and independence in a time when the pathways that were reluctantly opened to women during World War II were soon to be closed. Men would later return home from the war and renewed ideals of female domesticity would help to restore a pre-war order of separate gendered spheres relegating women back to the home and re-authorizing men as rulers of the public order, including the workplace, politics, etc.

The closing scene of the novel is less a transformation than a manifestation of Anna’s destiny made possible, in part, by strategic, rather than sentimental, alliances with marginal women. Mostly set in 1942 at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, Manhattan Beach is a historical novel, a genre so unpopular that The Atlantic recently called it “today’s least fashionable form.” Egan uses history as a form through which to speculate on an alternative past and to gesture toward a feminist future. The world of women is the real “shadow world” of the book, which, on the surface, refers to New York’s criminal underground of the 1930s and 1940s. There are no scenes of emotional bonding between women. In its place, women negotiate a man’s world together, confronting difficult issues that range from abortion to caretaking and disability. Women of the shadow world, such as her friend Nell, who lives the life of a mistress, and her spinster Aunt Brianne, prove crucial to Anna’s stubborn quest for self-determination. Egan provides a welcome revision of female friendship as solidarity against an oppressive male social order that poses both existential and everyday threats to women’s wellbeing and self-actualization.