BookBrowse Reviews The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp

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The Magnificent Esme Wells

by Adrienne Sharp

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp X
The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Symes
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A moving account of the dreams and realities of a girl growing up in the dangerous world of 1950s Las Vegas.

Esme Wells was not made to sit back and wait for her destiny. She was made to be magnificent. With an excess of ambition and beauty, the teenager should have been perfectly poised to take 1950s Las Vegas by storm. But first, she has to escape the shadow of her parents. With a gambler for a father and a wanna-be star for a mother, Esme learns quickly what it means to be at the bottom of the totem pole. And she wants none of it.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Esme is driven by her parents' failure to reach the ranks of "the big boys," as her father calls them. And if Esme is the wrong gender to be calling the shots, rest assured she will find a way to be by the side of the big boys while they make the decisions. She spends her childhood as a servant to her parents' plans, following her father as he gambles or helping her mother as she desperately tries to get bigger roles. The novel is full of grandiose statements idolizing the ever-elusive dream and dismissing the shortcomings of her parents. "I didn't want to watch someone else be what I wanted to be, as my mother had," and "He reminded me of my parents, with all the big beautiful dreams they chased with such fervor gone psst, leaving them lost and bewildered."

When Esme's father relocates to Las Vegas to help build Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo Hotel (see Beyond the Book), she finally gets her chance. Only twelve years old when she moves, she is enraptured by the glamor and grit of the city. Coming of age in the treacherous world of 1950s Las Vegas—a melting pot of mobsters, starlets, and hustlers—she learns to navigate the twists and turns of fortune with cunning and confidence.

Where her father flits from dream to dream and scheme to scheme, Esme's ambition is focused and she has the talent that her mother lacked. Shortly after getting to Vegas, Esme lands a job as a dancing girl. She is one of many, the whole lot of them just "girls rotating like flecks in a kaleidoscope." Insignificant, just as her parents had been. But it is only a matter of time until she can concoct a scheme that will get her where she wants to be.

When Esme catches the eye of the prominent mobster Nate Stein, her fate becomes dangerously intertwined with his. Esme unwittingly sets herself on a treacherous path but knows exactly what she's doing. Through her relationship with Nate, Esme succeeds in becoming the first burlesque artist on the Strip. She accomplishes her dream by establishing herself as a pioneer of a new age of Vegas entertainment. Her name becomes synonymous with success, and crowds flock to see her perform. She uses Nate to put other aspiring burlesque artists out of business, and in turn he uses her to fulfill his own violent schemes. While Esme may attempt to keep the machinations of the mobsters at arm's length, her relationship with Nate drags the violence of her world into the spotlight.

In the end, Esme allows herself to be drawn in to ever darker and more dangerous situations with only a hint of protest. As she becomes increasingly privy to the dark inner workings of a mobster's life, she must make a choice between her ambition and her conscience. In a sense, Esme's determination pays off. Her story is not that of her parents. Esme Wells becomes a name that means something. But in order to mingle in the circles of the rich, criminal, and powerful, she must make sacrifices.

The Magnificent Esme Wells is a twisted take on the American dream, laying bare Esme's struggle to achieve her dream without losing her innocence along the way. Written in a straightforward, earnest style this novel for adults will also be accessible to teen audiences. It gives us a close-up view of a driven and ambitious girl finding her own way in the world, and discovering what she wants and just how much she is willing to give up to get it.

Reviewed by Grace Symes

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2018, and has been updated for the May 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Flamingo Hotel

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