The daughter of two beautiful losers—a snakebit Jewish gambler and a chorus girl—comes of age in late 1930s Los Angeles and early 1950s Las Vegas.
A blonde, blue-eyed child of 6, Esme Silver has not yet been enrolled in school, which doesn't mean she’s not getting an education. She spends her days on the MGM lot with her mother and at the track with her father; she’s known to the regulars at both places. One of her rituals is to purchase lunch at the track’s concession stand for her father and herself, four hot dogs for 40 cents; the counter lady often combs out her hair and washes her face. “I can only imagine what compelled her ministrations, what I must have looked like, hair unbrushed, shirt on backwards, my neck strung with a hundred necklaces in imitation of my mother, a silk flower pinned to my wild coiffure.” In one track of this story, 20-year-old Esme recalls the events of 1939 that culminated in her moving with her father to Las Vegas, where he was employed by Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. The second track follows Esme’s own career in Vegas, which takes off when she's noticed at age 15 by Nate Stein, an ambitious and ruthless Jewish gangster. Stein is fictional, but many of the characters are real, including cameos by Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters, and Busby Berkeley. Sharp’s (The True Memoirs of Little K, 2010) research shines in her detailed descriptions of the MGM productions Esme’s mother plays in and the Vegas extravaganzas that feature Esme herself. “The Stardust’s…stage was larger than a basketball court, with an Esther Williams–like swimming tank for summer shows and Sonja Henie–like skating rink for winter ones. The pipes secreted in the catwalks created rain or snow on demand.” If you liked Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, this novel offers a similarly immersive mid-20th-century experience, featuring a heroine as interesting, tough, and tragic as Egan’s Anna Kerrigan, with similar Daddy issues and gangland connections.
This glittering noirish tragedy, with its lushly imagined period landscape and subtle feminist trajectory, is both fun to read and sad to think about.