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All the Beautiful Girls

Review

All the Beautiful Girls

Elizabeth J. Church has a real talent for developing memorable female protagonists, whose personal journeys of transformation and self-discovery play out against vivid historical backgrounds. In her first novel, THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE, she depicted an aspiring scientist whose career aspirations are stifled by her husband’s work at Los Alamos during the era of developing the nuclear bomb. In her second book, ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, Church again brings to life the American Southwest in the middle of the 20th century. This time, however, the backdrop is not the isolated canyons and secret labs of Los Alamos, but the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas in its heyday.

"ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS is a novel that is sexy and enticing, with its lush descriptions of Ruby’s showgirl lifestyle and its celebrity cameos, but it also is full of issues to discuss and think deeply about."

Church’s protagonist is Lily Decker, who, when readers first meet her, is a child growing up in Salinas, Kansas. Following the horrific death of her parents and sister in a car accident (from which Lily walked away unscathed), she’s being brought up by her emotionally withholding aunt and her sexually abusive uncle. Lily’s only trusted adult is, surprisingly, the man who killed her family, a military pilot she calls simply “the Aviator.” He fosters Lily’s love for books and, especially, her passion for dance, at which she excels. As high school graduation approaches, Lily’s dance teacher supports her decision to forego college in favor of a dance career, and she advises Lily to bypass New York or Hollywood and head straight to where the action is: Las Vegas.

It’s 1967, and Las Vegas’s glamour and bright lights offer ordinary folks an escape from the mounting tensions of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. At first, Lily is entranced by Vegas, but she soon grows disillusioned when her first two auditions result in a quick dismissal. One producer pulls her aside for some advice: with her looks and voluptuous figure, a career as a showgirl, not a jazz dancer, will be the road to success for her.

Lily soon overcomes her reluctance to dance topless, especially when she starts collecting her generous paychecks, not to mention the gifts from admirers. But even surrounded by friends and showered with money and adoration, Lily (now known as Ruby Wilde) feels like something is missing --- like her childhood has irreparably damaged her in ways she can’t even fully articulate or comprehend.

ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS is a novel that is sexy and enticing, with its lush descriptions of Ruby’s showgirl lifestyle and its celebrity cameos, but it also is full of issues to discuss and think deeply about. Vegas’s glittery façade masks so much, not least the significant historical events happening elsewhere in the country and in the world. The rift between fantasy and reality --- and how that divide affects Ruby --- is one underlying theme, as is the complicated relationship of women to their bodies and the tendency of abuse to resurface and recapitulate in various ways.

In the end, though, Church’s novel is uplifting, especially as it subverts expectations and shows that there is still, for Ruby/Lily, a chance for recovery and an opportunity to celebrate different kinds of love and different sorts of families. ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS sheds a different kind of light on a young woman whose value and purpose go far beyond her pretty face.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 9, 2018

All the Beautiful Girls
by Elizabeth J. Church

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399181067
  • ISBN-13: 9780399181061