In her latest novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells, Adrienne Sharp takes her readers on a journey from pre-World War II Hollywood to postwar Las Vegas. It’s a short trip in terms of miles, but, oh what we view on the way. Our guide is Esme Wells, née Silver, a precocious, perceptive beauty even at six years old. Raised by two dysfunctional parents — her mother, Dina, an emotionally unstable Hollywood chorine; and her father, Ike, a small-time crook and full-time gambler — Esme has to figure out how to navigate life by herself. Denied a formal education because her parents’ fluctuating fortune forces them to be constantly on the move, she learns most of life’s lessons from observing her parents. She becomes adept at being a schemer, and learns how to “ambush” a man. Most crucially, she is well schooled in loving someone she doesn’t trust.
The author repeatedly refers to Las Vegas as “Survival City,” but the descriptive word could just as well apply to Esme. Although the reader might view her as a victim, used by everyone of importance in her life, Esme doesn’t see herself as one. She manages to survive and even succeed without bitterness or self-pity. While this doesn’t make her magnificent, it surely makes her remarkable.
With particular poignancy, Sharp depicts the strong bond between child and parent — particularly between Esme and Ike — and the complexity of romantic love as experienced by Esme. The author also adeptly explores the price paid for ambition and greed, and the pervasive desperation that comes with it.
Hollywood and Las Vegas are characters in this novel as much as the people. Sharp’s depictions of these cities and their creation by Jewish gangsters and movie moguls are highly authentic; many of the characters are actual historical figures.
While not terribly profound, The Magnificent Esme Wells is a compelling read with nuanced characters and many insights into human nature.