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Review: The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp
HarperCollins, 2018. 335 pp. $27

When Esme Silver is twelve, in 1945, her family moves to Las Vegas to work for Bugsy Siegel, the infamous mobster, who’s trying to build a casino and has gotten over his head in debt. You can guess that the Silvers, Ike and Dina, have blithely gone swimming in shark-infested waters, but as you quickly discover, they’ve been doing that ever since Ike got Dina pregnant when she was sixteen.

Their daughter has an inkling of what she’s inherited; the only thing she doesn’t know is how much she’ll suffer for it. As a six-year-old, Esme accompanies Ike to the racetracks of Los Angeles, watches him strut, lose his stake, and then fight with her mother, whose wedding ring he has likely pawned. Or else the little girl joins Dina at the Hollywood movie lots she frequents to grub for chorus-line roles in B pictures. The biggest difference between Ike and Dina is that Ike never blames her for his setbacks—let’s not call them failures — whereas Dina’s resentment simmers just below the surface. If it weren’t for Esme, she thinks, she’d be a star.

And Esme’s penance is heavy indeed. Ike feeds her, sort of, when he has charge of her, but Dina seldom bothers. The little girl wears her mother’s clothing, never gets her hair combed, and rarely bathes. Nor do the Silvers send her to school, but the sort of education she receives is one of a kind–playing her part in the lie Dina tells at the movie lots, that Esme is her little sister, or at the racetrack, scrounging for winning tickets that might have been dropped.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s mug shot, 1928 (courtesy New York City Police Department via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, venal, mob-ruled Las Vegas, though bad for Ike and Dina, is absolute poison for their daughter, particularly once she enters her teenage years and shows she’s inherited her mother’s beauty. Since Dina has always told her that a woman’s face is her fortune, you know that Esme is about to prove it, and with the worst guy possible.

What a dark coming-of-age story, and though Esme is a marvelous narrator — astute, witty, with more than her share of courage—she’s in great pain. I cringed to read about an abused, neglected child who becomes an exploited woman. Nevertheless, she never asks for sympathy, and her clear-eyed honesty compels my allegiance: She admits that she doesn’t act purely from necessity. She enjoys the risk, the reward, and the adulation, and as such, she recognizes her parents in herself.

Sharp’s descriptions, which infuse settings with deep feeling, offer a primer on novel writing. She re-creates Los Angeles and Las Vegas as though she had a camera. You can practically smell the hair oil on the gangsters, and you stand in the casinos with chips in your hand. But the best part is how she reveals both ambience and character. This passage, for instance, shows Ike at the racetrack:

When my father was winning, riding a good streak, every one of his picks coming in big, he would stroll the track, and with each step he took at the turnstile, the paddock, the Study Hall, the grandstands, men called out to him, “How you doing, Ike,” came up to shake his hand, asking who he liked in the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. But when he wasn’t winning, he hunkered down in the back corner of the Study Hall on the bottom level, the concourse, like a delinquent student serving detention. He smoked his cigarettes at his table overflowing with racing sheets, made desperate notes with his worn-down stub of a pencil in his lucky red notebook, always the same kind, which was always fat with money in the morning and by the end of a bad day, thin with nothing but its own lined leaves of paper.

For better and worse, Sharp seals off Esme and her parents in a bubble, with every surface and reflection lovingly rendered. You can understand the temptation, because Esme witnesses scenes she’d otherwise never see, but it’s not always credible. Why doesn’t anyone ever notice that a six-year-old girl isn’t in school? That the Silvers move every few months, and that they don’t want officialdom to know their circumstances, may explain Esme’s truancy, but not how they get away with it. There’s an awful lot of lawbreaking in this story, but no police.

Grand events pose another problem. Sure, Dina and Ike are self-absorbed, but even World War II doesn’t seem to touch them and is barely mentioned, while nobody talks about the Great Depression at all. Despite their Jewishness, which might have pointed them toward events in Europe, anti-Semitism evades their notice until Mickey Cohen, one of the Jewish mob they work for, takes matters in hand. With such an eye for small detail, Sharp could have painted the larger picture, I think, without getting lost in it.

All the same, The Magnificent Esme Wells is a powerful, bold novel, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.