Women of Las Vegas

Summer is almost here, and that means travel. It also means work in the tourist industry, and what town is more dependent on tourism than Las Vegas? I've found some novels dealing with the grit behind the glitz for female workers in the neon palaces in the desert. While these books are historical novels, they share some themes, including the absurdity of the gambler's dream and an oasis that is mostly mirage.

In Adrienne Sharp's The Magnificent Esme Wells, the title character has lost her mother, witnessed the building of modern Las Vegas, been an unwitting accomplice in a murder, become both a stripper and the mistress of a gangster, and purposely overdosed on tranquilizers, all before the fateful night of her 21st birthday. Raised by two hopeless dreamers, uneducated but clear-eyed Esme gives a sharp view of the mid-century, dream towns of Hollywood and Las Vegas and their winners, but mostly their losers. There are plenty of memorable characters, including historical personages, as well as haunting descriptions, particularly of the nuclear tests taking place not far outside town. This is the other side of the cool expressed by the Rat Pack.

Vegas is well established by the time Lily Decker rolls into town in Elizabeth J. Church's All the Beautiful Girls. Changing her name to Ruby Wilde and attempting to leave the demons of her childhood behind, she pursues her dream of being a dancer. Finally giving in to the pressure to work topless, Lily/Ruby becomes a star. She has a passionate relationship with a Spanish photographer but when it ends, Lily has to re-evaluate her life, now lived in tumultuous San Francisco. Another engaging, character-driven look at Las Vegas, this time in the late 1960s.

The hilariously misnamed Liza Normal spends much of her youth the victim of her stage door mother in Colors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson. Taking place in 1980's Los Angeles before Liza finds success in Las Vegas, Wilson takes the opportunity to point out the fallacy of success as promoted by Hollywood. Episodic in nature, we watch as Liza careens from campy musical to drug-dealer boyfriend to a show on the Strip based on the fan fiction she writes as life is inflicted on her. Trenchant and funny, Wilson points out that even if it wasn't filmed, yes, it really did happen.

Heather Skyler's The Perfect Age ends with the demolition of the Dunes Hotel and Casino in 1993 and starts three years earlier. Helen is 15 when she starts lifeguarding at the Dunes and dating Leo. Her mother finds her own marriage to be stifling and takes up with Helen's boss. Over three summers, these characters flirt, fight, cheat, and wrestle with the moral consequences of their choices. By the time Helen is ready to leave for college, we've come to know all of the characters like our own family. Skyler captures civilian Las Vegas in stark descriptions of both environment and people and if you like tales of mother-daughter conflict, this is one to pick up.

Have more stories of the women of Las Vegas? Tell  us about them in the comments.

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