The Magnificent Esme Wells
In The Magnificent Esme Wells, author Adrienne Sharp introduces readers to the always resourceful daughter of a Hollywood starlet and an aspiring gangster. It’s a lushly atmospheric novel that moves back and forth between 1930s Hollywood and 1950s Vegas as it recounts the story of Esme’s journey to make something of herself in a world that is far from ready for a woman with the brains and beauty she possesses.
As a child growing up in Hollywood’s golden age, Esme spends her days either on movie sets with her mother, the lovely and talented Dina, or hanging out at the race track with her father Ike, a man who is always in search of the next big thing that will make him rich. Esme’s life might not be conventional, but she can’t imagine living any other way. She’s absolutely in awe of Dina, and willingly acts as a sort of foil to get her into auditions and meetings she might not otherwise have been offered. It’s true that she isn’t always sure Dina loves her the way most mothers love their children, but she considers this to be a small price to pay for the privilege of having a mother who is taking Hollywood by storm. She adores being a Daddy’s girl and thinks nothing of helping him devise all manner of scams and schemes to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, Esme’s life won’t always be as idyllic as these early Hollywood years. Her mother dies under very mysterious circumstances, leaving Esme and her father to cope alone, and Ike can’t stand the thought of remaining in Hollywood, so he joins forces with a man Esme knows only as Benny, a rather shady man with plans to open the largest, most luxurious hotel Las Vegas has ever seen. Esme is always ready for adventure, and she loves the idea of living in a place as glamorous as Las Vegas seems to be. She’s sure she’ll be able to make her mark there, even if she’s not exactly sure what kind of mark it will be.
Once in Vegas, Esme comes to the attention of Nate Stein, one of the most powerful men on the Vegas strip. He’s almost immediately drawn to Esme’s unusual beauty, while she is fascinated by Nate’s larger than life personality. At first, Nate seems reluctant to get involved with Esme, something I found completely understandable given the fact that she can’t be more than seventeen when they first meet, but the two eventually begin a torrid affair. Suddenly, Esme is on top of the world. Now, all she has to do is stay there.
Adrienne Sharp has created a lovable heroine who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, even if such ambition is frowned on by those around her. Esme refuses to give up, even when it seems like she’s completely out of options, and I found myself willing her to find her way out of all manner of sticky situations. She’s not a perfect heroine by any stretch of the imagination, and she sometimes acts in ways I didn’t agree with, but I was always able to understand the reasons behind her actions, and that, at least in my opinion, is an essential component of good character development.
I really struggled to like Esme’s parents, though. Dina comes off as incredibly self-centered and overly temperamental, while Ike seems reckless and irresponsible. I found myself wondering on more than one occasion how these two very flawed individuals had managed to produce a daughter like Esme.
I loved the portions of the book set in Las Vegas. Ms. Sharp does a stellar job bringing the setting and the characters who dwell there to life. There’s quite a bit of action in those chapters, and I found myself kind of exasperated whenever the story went back to Esme’s early life in Hollywood. I usually enjoy stories that center around Hollywood’s early years, but I just couldn’t manage to care much about it here. Things happened, but they weren’t things I was very invested in, and I had to force myself to keep reading instead of skipping ahead to read more about what was going on in Las Vegas.
There’s quite a bit to like about this book, but I still came away feeling a little let down. The ending is way too ambiguous for my taste, and the overall pacing of the story is uneven. Still, if you’re a fan of historical fiction centered around strong heroines, you might enjoy The Magnificent Esme Wells.