Published by Harper
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Historical
Esme Silver is the flaxen haired, china doll, daughter of a Busby Berkley dancer and a handsome, low level grifter. They live in Los Angeles where her parents are certain her mother’s big break into movies is always only a day away. Except the only thing that is ever a day away is them being kicked out of their apartment because her father blew the rent money at the track. After her mother’s untimely death, her father decides that his boss, Bugsy Siegel, has the answer to all their problems: Las Vegas. It’s 1945 and in The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp, twelve-year-old Esme follows her father from Tinseltown to the desert hoping she can achieve the success that eluded her mother.
The Las Vegas Esme and her father find is not the one we know now. It is just sand. Lots of sand. Ike Silver hopes that by attaching himself to Siegel’s big idea of turning a rundown motel into a destination casino and resort, he can finally hit the jackpot and live the life of luxury he’s always wanted. Esme spends the three years it takes for the Flamingo to be finished, hanging around, watching, and listening. She’s as beautiful as her mother was and has the same ambition, but if it has to happen in Las Vegas as a show girl so be it. When the Flamingo opens she is only 15, but Siegel lets her work as a dancer. From there, it’s on to the Desert Inn and dancing in a real show, where she catches the eye of another mobster, a man almost three times her age. He makes her a Vegas star with money and power, but at what cost?
The Magnificent Esme Wells is much like Las Vegas itself. On the surface, the novel is all the sparkle and glamour of a city built by gangsters, populated with beautiful young women, where with just one good wager everything in your life could change for the better. But underneath, it was sordid and ugly, much in the same way Esme’s lovely golden hair was filthy and too snarled to be combed because her parents’ self-absorption left no room for a child’s care. Even when her father achieves some job security working for Siegel on the Flamingo project he pays little attention to Esme unless she’s in the casino.
But this isn’t a novel of a neglected girl, or rather it is, but it’s what she does with the hand dealt her. She realizes that the hokey simple dance numbers the new Las Vegas casinos put on are not going to hold anyone’s attention for long. She channels her mother to make the show as much of a draw as the casino. The fact that she comes to this before she’s old enough to legally be in the casino is moot. She’s old enough to know
…maybe it was because I was finally grown up, which I’d been trying to do since we’d arrived in Las Vegas because there was nothing here for little girls and so many opportunities for young women. I didn’t know yet how these men were protective of little girls but preyed upon them when they grew up.
The dichotomy of men—protective of the child, but hunters of the grown.
The Magnificent Esme Wells is not a character study or deep fiction—it is a well-written slice of life in the post-WWII west. It’s entertainment plus: quick, pleasurable reading with oomph. Sharp recreates a time before the over-the-top Vegas existed, giving the reader a peek at what the foundation was made of and where the bodies were buried (literally and figuratively), all epitomized in one young woman who takes her destiny into her own hands and owns it.