4.10.2018

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp (ARC Review)

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
Publisher: Harper Books (April 10, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Esme Silver has always taken care of her charming ne’er-do-well father, Ike Silver, a small-time crook with dreams of making it big with Bugsy Siegel. Devoted to her daddy, Esme is often his "date" at the racetrack, where she amiably fetches the hot dogs while keeping an eye to the ground for any cast-off tickets that may be winners.
In awe of her mother, Dina Wells, Esme is more than happy to be the foil who gets the beautiful Dina into meetings and screen tests with some of Hollywood’s greats. When Ike gets an opportunity to move to Vegas—and, in what could at last be his big break, to help the man she knows as "Benny" open the Flamingo Hotel—life takes an unexpected turn for Esme. A stunner like her mother, the young girl catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the Strip’s most powerful men.
Narrated by the twenty-year-old Esme, The Magnificent Esme Wells moves between pre–WWII Hollywood and postwar Las Vegas—a golden age when Jewish gangsters and movie moguls were often indistinguishable in looks and behavior. Esme’s voice—sharp, observant, and with a quiet, mordant wit—chronicles the rise and fall and further fall of her complicated parents, as well as her own painful reckoning with love and life. A coming-of-age story with a tinge of noir, and a tale that illuminates the promise and perils of the American dream and its dreamers, The Magnificent Esme Wells is immersive, moving, and compelling.

I feel that I should preface this review with a full disclosure that I have a great amount of love and nostalgia for Las Vegas. I first traveled there with my mom for my 21st birthday many years ago (over two decades, gah) and going once or twice a year thereafter for at least ten years. I remember visiting several of the hotels featured in the novel, most which no longer exist. It's not high on my travel priority list anymore, but I think on it fondly and love most things associated with the City of Lights. 

Esme is a powerful narrator with a distinct voice. Sharp renders her with such strength and courage, while being one of the most tragic characters I've read in a long time. A dual timeline is employed to great effect, slowly gathering tension towards the conclusion of her mother's story in Hollywood during Esme's childhood, and the conclusion of her own story in Las Vegas as a young woman. I found myself more engaged with Esme as an adult in Vegas. Although I am a fan of old Hollywood historical fiction (see also: Beautiful Ruins, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and films like L.A. Confidential), the Hollywood storyline is centered around Esme's parents and upbringing which are both deplorable. The early part of the novel focuses heavily on this period, so it took awhile to warm up. Once things turn more towards her coming of age, and the crises Esme faces during the fascinating coming of age of Las Vegas, I began turning the pages in rapid succession, desperate to learn of her fate. 

"I didn't know yet how these men were protective of little girls but preyed upon them when they grew up. But you couldn't stop growing up. The transition from girlhood to womanhood turned on a pivot. One day you were a child and then, all at once, you weren't."

Esme's narration feels almost as if she is an outside observer to her own life. One could take that as detachment, but I thought that it lent even more empathy towards her character because she was clearly not in control of her life for much of the novel. And many of the circumstances in which she had to bear witness were so tragic that her detachment can be seen as a defense mechanism, the most pivotal of which is disclosed near the end of the novel and it brought tears to my eyes.  Overall, it was darker than I had anticipated, yet a mesmerizing read.

Many thanks to the great people at Harper Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!




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