Friday, April 27, 2018

Dancing with the Stars—Yes, Really



After getting whomped with work and going through a set of bizarre circumstances (power out, power back but Internet out, etc.) that led to my having one completed podcast in the first ten weeks of the year, I shook the trees effectively enough that now I have so many books and authors in line that I can’t really read anything but the novels of potential interview guests until the fall. One of the books I pursued during the initial stage of this process was The Magnificent Esme Wells, a historical novel about the early days of Las Vegas. It sounded interesting, and it is: the daughter of a Hollywood starlet and a small-time crook can hardly expect a boring life.

But it was when I began investigating the author’s other works that I really became hooked. I discovered that Adrienne Sharp had once been, in her own words, “a ballet girl”—meaning a young person obsessed with dance. From there she turned to writing short stories, then novels, about the ballet world—including The True Memoirs of Little K, which fictionalizes the already improbably dramatic life of Mathilde Kschessinska, star of the Russian Imperial Ballet and one-time mistress of not only Nicholas II but several of his male relatives.

You can find out more about Little K and her views on the imperial family, the Russian Revolution, and a good deal more by checking the Five Directions Press “Books We Loved” post, where she is featured as one of my two selections for April. And, of course, Adrienne Sharp and I discuss Kschessinska at some length in our interview. It’s not everyone who can manage to fall foul of the Russian government more than a century after first making eyes at the future tsar.

But we do also spend a good bit of time discussing The Magnificent Esme Wells, with its directors and producers, its line dancers and burlesque dancers, its gangsters and its cameo portrayals of Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Busby Berkeley, Judy Garland, and more. We had a great time talking about these things, and I hope you will enjoy listening just as much. 


A quick summary of Esme’s life and what you might expect from her story follows. As usual, you can also find the rest of this post at New Books in Historical Fiction.

At six, Esme Wells has never attended school, but she has already learned how to take care of her father: accompany him to the racetrack, load up on hot dogs when asked, and keep an eye open for stray tickets that may turn out to be winning bets. When not watching the horses or accompanying her father to pawnshops to pay for his habit, more than once with his wife’s wedding ring, Esme hangs around the Hollywood back lots where her mother, Dina, seeks a screen test and stardom while dancing in Busby Berkeley musicals.

But Esme has dreams of her own. After her father’s criminal ties take them both to Las Vegas, still little more than a blip on the map, and she makes the acquaintance of the gangster Bugsy Siegel, Esme uses her talents as a performer and her considerable female charms to catapult her into a career as a showgirl, gangster’s moll, and burlesque dancer.

In this amoral universe, where the only unforgivable crime is to steal from the bosses, Esme struggles to find happiness while protecting her father from the consequences of his own shortsightedness. In The Magnificent Esme Wells (Harper, 2018), Adrienne Sharp’s richly evocative prose pulls us into the sun-drenched, money-hungry world of Hollywood and Las Vegas in the 1930s and 1940s, with all its heroes, villains, and people just trying to get by. The consequences of the resulting clashes of personalities and ambitions will haunt you for days.


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