REVIEW: All the Beautiful Girls by Elizabeth J. Church

In brief: Showgirl Ruby Wilde is at the top of her game in Las Vegas in the late 1960s. But it wasn’t always that way growing up and her life is about to take another twist…

The good: You feel like you really are on the Strip.

The not-so-good: Some very painful moments for the main character.

Why I chose it: Liked the cover, picked it up and realised I liked the sound of the story too.

Year: 2018

Pages: 325

Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins)

Setting: Various places in America, but mainly (fabulous) Las Vegas, Nevada

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

All the Beautiful Girls had a shallow attraction for me at first. Basically, I liked the cover (how often do you see showgirls not posing?) and the font of the title. So I picked it up, saw it was set in Las Vegas and it was historical fiction. Insta-buy and soon into my reading hands to be devoured. But don’t be fooled by the glamour on the front, this novel is not all neon lights and glitter. It deals with a number of serious issues, such as sexual and domestic abuse and the rights of women in the 1960s and 70s.

The story is told through the eyes of young Lily Decker, whose world comes crashing down at a young age when the rest of her family is killed in a car accident. Lily is sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are completely different to everything she’s ever know. Her aunt doesn’t know how to love Lily and her uncle has an unhealthy interest in little girls. Poor Lily is scared and frightened but is already determined not to be a victim. Her resolve is strengthened by the mysterious books she is sent by a man she calls the Aviator. The Aviator feels guilt at being the other car in the fatal crash and wants to help Lily the best he can. But it’s a dance scholarship that gives Lily the wings she needs to escape her small town for the lights of Vegas. There, Lily becomes Ruby Wilde and must change her ideas to create success. Which she does – she’s in demand by greats such as Tom Jones and Sammy Davis Jr and men flock to her shows. But Ruby’s life, despite the jewels and money, isn’t quite right. Will falling in love cure her faults or will it take another great loss?

Lily/Ruby’s journey was never dull. She was a character that I really warmed to, so much so that I cringed and worried for her when she was making poor choices or being exploited. She came to life off the page, warts and all. Her determination to survive and excel was strong and in her lowest points, I really just wanted to reach out and give her a hug, try to make things better. My only (likely personal) niggle was the ending. While I believe that Ruby was happy, coming from my own position, I wanted something better for her than what she had. I felt that she was settling for safety. But that’s my opinion, and I’m not Lily so I don’t really have a right to judge. It is a fitting ending though and offers some hope. Kudos to Church for creating a character who the reader wants to champion!

The research into Las Vegas is also meticulous. My own knowledge is limited to movies from that era but Church really captures the lights, glitz and glamour – and the hard work that’s behind us. I hadn’t seriously considered the weight of a showgirl’s costume, nor the difficulty of smiling and dancing while wearing almost nothing and very high heels. I also didn’t realise that they were expected to fraternise with the men afterwards to try to bring further profit to the casino. For some of the dancers, it’s part of the job and money making; for Lily, it was more difficult. The pressure on these women to perform on and off the stage was immense. It wasn’t just the inequality of women that showed through, but those of African-American people. For example, Sammy Davis Jr not being allowed in the front entrance of the casinos. Las Vegas pictured itself as being in a bubble of happiness, but the politics, sexism and racism of the times still managed to shine through the neon. Lily’s expectation to be hurt, demeaned and exploited made reading these scenes extra poignant.

The last section of the novel feels like a homecoming for Lily. Despite the lights of the strip, this part felt brighter – full of light and hope as love was explored, given and received. It was incredibly evocative of how Lily’s childhood should have been.

All in all, this is a beautiful, sensitive story that is well worth your time and tears.

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