This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, HarperCollins / 4th Estate Books. This review is also being published to NetGalley, GoodReads, Amazon, LinkedIn, and all my social media accounts.
The dazzling, powerful story of a gutsy showgirl who tries to conquer her past amongst the glamour of 1960s Las Vegas – finding unexpected fortune, friendship and love.
In the summer of 1968, Ruby Wilde is the toast of Las Vegas. Showgirl of the Year, in her feathers and rhinestones, five-inch heels and sky-high headdresses, she mesmerises audiences from the Tropicana to the Stardust. Ratpackers and movie stars, gamblers and astronauts vie for her attention and shower her with gifts.
But not so long ago Ruby Wilde was Lily Decker from Kansas: an orphaned girl determined to dance her way out of her troubled past. When she was eight years old, Lily survived the car crash that killed her parents and sister. Raised by an aunt who took too little interest in her and an uncle who took too much, dancing was her solace, and her escape. When a mysterious benefactor pays for her to attend a local dance academy, Lily’s talent becomes her ticket to a new life.
Now, as Ruby Wilde, the ultimate Sin City success story, she discovers that the glare of the spotlight cannot banish the shadows that haunt her. As the years pass and Ruby continues to search for freedom, for love and, most importantly, herself, she must learn the difference between what glitters and what is truly gold.
‘A gorgeously written novel with the bite of a gin martini, All the Beautiful Girls goes beyond the splashy, gaudy dazzle of Las Vegas in the sixties to reveal the beating heart beneath the glamorous façade of a showgirl with big ambitions.’ ~ Sara Gruen
‘A heartbreaking story, passionately told’ ~ Ellen Feldman
‘A brave and powerful novel … With heart-wrenching immediacy and gorgeous prose, author Elizabeth Church examines the often desperate choices women must confront, and the secrets they must protect’ ~ Lauren Belfer
”A beautifully rendered tale of personal redemption filled with friendship, loss, extravagant furs, and feathery headdresses’ ~ Kirkus
‘A beautifully written and thoughtful novel with strong themes of love, trust, guilt, family and friendship’ ~ Historical Novel Review
‘An exquisitely crafted novel of love discovered and friendship found. No one captures the exuberant passions and inner struggles of women like Elizabeth Church’ ~ Martha Hall Kelly
‘The show girl’s life is fascinating but so, too, is the interior struggle of a young woman battling demons that dog her every step. Church has given us a true heroine, both flawed and beautiful, who rises even as she falls’ ~ Juliette Fay
‘Elizabeth J Church has brought that era to life with this book. It’s full of high kicking glamour, there’s love and there’s loss. It’s a book that celebrates friendship and the strength that we find from it’ ~ Emma, Bedford Waterstones
“Delightful . . . Church’s appreciation of language is apparent as she masterfully creates pictures with words.” ~ Associated Press
a bonus feature:
Listen to excerpts of the novel read by Katherine Fenton, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers:
Lily Decker loses her parents and big sister to a traffic accident when she is just eight years old, and is sent to live with her mother’s sister, an embittered and stern woman who, unlike Lily’s mother, is unable to understand much more beyond her life of blue-collar strife, or to give the little girl the love she needs; and her husband, who soon also begins sexually abusing the little girl. The only measure of control she seems to be able to assert in her life is self-harm.
Riddled with guilt for the accident that killed the little girl’s family, test pilot Sterling, starts sending her books and taking an active interest in the her education, which includes paying for her dancing lessons once the girl tells him that dancing is the only thing that makes her happy. Lily forges herself into a determined and gritty person, who dreams but of escaping Kansas and the dreariness of her life and family.
Advised by an ill-informed dance teacher, as soon as she reaches 18 Lily escapes to Vegas, where she is told she stands a better chance at making it as a dancer. On her way there, she re-invents herself as Ruby Wilde. Failing at all the auditions and unable to make it as a dancer, Ruby eventually takes a job as a casino showgirl, which was the very last thing she wanted to do but enables her not just to become the toast of the town but to quickly amass considerable savings.
While admittedly Ruby makes for an interesting heroine, she does not seem to be that bright a spark, especially considering how well read she’s supposed to be and the valuable and wise life advice she gets from her benefactor. She ends up falling in love with the wrong man and being trapped in an abusing relationship, which ends with her love interest leaving her pregnant and stealing all she has. Simultaneously, Lily/Ruby seems to keep abreast of what is going on in the wider world, namely the assassination of Martin Luther King, nuclear testing in Nevada and the Vietnam War protests (the main events and strife of late 1960s America), and she seemingly develops an acute social conscience.
All The Beautiful Girls is quite an interesting novel, ultimately exploring love, loss and friendship, even though it follows a series of quite common formulas and prescriptions: a girl who manages to prise herself out of her life of hardship and abuse through sheer grit and determination alone, who dreams of making a life of affluence for herself, but who eventually finds out that nothing can erase the scars left by her childhood trauma. It is set in the 1950s and 1960s, in Kansas, Las Vegas, and then Albuquerque, and is structured in three parts.
The first part is set in Kansas and concerns Lily’s childhood and teenager years; it depicts her life with her aunt and uncle, and contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. The central part, which is I think the most interesting and what makes this book such a successful one, is set in Las Vegas and concerns Lily’s years as Ruby: it depicts the whole, often surreal Las Vegas environment and culture, with all its glitz and glamour, its excesses — beginning with the outlandish and over-the-top costumes and the girls wardrobes — its sexism and exploitation, and its proud and complete alienation from real life.
The third part provides us with the resolution of the novel’s conflict and the heroine’s redemption, with Lily shedding her skin as Ruby and learning how to accept herself and how to reconstruct herself and her life. After the Las Vegas chapters, and however necessary we understand it to be both in terms of the girl’s and the novel’s development, this third part feels almost anti-climatic and quite flat and — well, a bit meh.
There are echoes of past literary best sellers in this novel (which reminds us for instance of a Hollywood-set Valley of the Dolls, however in a much milder, less scandalous version). But there is also something else in All The Beautiful Girls that grabs your attention and prompts you to keep reading. It is a beautifully written book, and Elizabeth J. Church’s mastery, passion and enjoyment of language is fully evident: I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages and turns of phrase in a book before, bits that I want to revisit and enjoy again and again. There is also an accuracy of historical detail that is to be praised and which, together with Church’s amazing gift with words, elevate this book from simply yet another chick-lit read to a good woman’s lit book to have around, or to dive into when you need a good, hopeful, girly story to cheer you up.
Genre pegging: General Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Verdict: a recommended example of good old Women’s Fiction
Shelves: Women’s Fiction