It was unimaginable. When she was eight years old, Lily Decker somehow survived the auto accident that killed her parents and sister, but neither her emotionally distant aunt nor her all-too-attentive uncle could ease her grief. Dancing proves to be Lily’s only solace, and eventually she receives a “scholarship” to a local dance academy–courtesy of a mysterious benefactor.
Grown and ready to leave home for good, Lily changes her name to Ruby Wilde and heads to Las Vegas to be a troupe dancer, but her sensual beauty and voluptuous figure land her work instead as a showgirl performing everywhere from Les Folies Bergere at the Tropicana to the Stardust’s Lido de Paris. Wearing costumes dripping with feathers and rhinestones, five-inch heels, and sky-high headdresses, Ruby may have all the looks of a Sin City success story, but she still must learn to navigate the world of men–and figure out what real love looks like.
With her uncanny knack for understanding the hidden lives of women, Elizabeth J. Church captures both the iconic extravagance of an era and the bravery of a young woman who dances through her sadness to find connection, freedom, and, most important, herself.
All the Beautiful Girls by Elizabeth J. Church
Publication Date: March 6, 2018 by Ballantine Books
I had the luck of discovering Church’s novel after my wife nabbed me a ticket for the Random House Open House this past spring. I enjoyed listening to her in the panel conversation and she was a joy to meet afterward at the cocktail hour when all the guests had a chance to meet the featured authors.
All the Beautiful Girls is a unique coming-of-age story that holds a lot more depth than I anticipated from the general summary of the book. Readers should know that there are some serious issues here that probably warrant a trigger warning (I was a bit taken aback by the sexual abuse that is addressed very early in the story), but this brutal honesty plays an important role in Lily’s life and clearly has a major impact on her future relationships as an adult.
I’ve never been to Las Vegas and so I don’t have any foundation on which to compare the “new” Las Vegas to the sin city of the 1960s when showgirls and the Rat Pack were at their prime, but Church’s gorgeous descriptions and very evident research make it easy to create a vision of what it was like at that time. Despite the seriousness of story, there really is beauty in many of Lily’s experiences as a dancer and her relationships with the other women she meets early on. I also had a major soft spot for the man known as The Aviator which only increased once more is revealed about him as the book progresses.
All the Beautiful Girls is also a poignant story about sexuality, gender roles, and the impact sexism has on women in particular. Even though Lily is struggling through these issues in the 60s, it’s easy to compare many of the women’s experiences in the book to our current society – women are still viewed as “sluts” if they choose to engage in casual sex or dress “provocatively” and yet that is all young girls see in the media. Lily struggles with wanting to pursue her passion for dancing while also having to confront the “morals” her aunt and uncle placed on her about being chaste and “lady-like” (at the same time she was being raped by this same uncle). Lily is very relatable despite her showgirl fame and this is what really made the book a memorable read for me.