Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love (reviewed here), was about an 87-year-old amateur ornithologist whose husband was one of the creators of the atomic bomb. I could see some of its themes – the difficulty of a woman choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and the ongoing search for love – carrying through to All the Beautiful Girls, her second novel, although the setup is initially very different. Lily Decker has a horrific childhood in Salina, Kansas. She survives the two-car accident that kills her parents and sister and is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Tate, desperate to take a firm hand with her charge, struggles to show love, while Uncle Miles is downright cruel. Within the first chapter he’s wrung Lily’s pet hamster’s neck, called her dumb for laying four places at the table out of habit, and started sexually abusing her. It’s all pretty hard for a sensitive reader to take.
Luckily, there are ‘intermittent pools of rainwater relief, times when Lily smiled,’ thanks to her love for dancing, inspired by Dinah Shore on the television, and the parcels of books that arrive from an anonymous benefactor. Before long we learn that Lily’s Dickensian patron is the man responsible for the death of her family: Stirling Sloan, generally known as the Aviator. He lets Lily down gently when she asks him to accompany her to her school’s father–daughter dance, but promises to make it up to her by paying for dance lessons, and then a bus ticket to Las Vegas after graduation.
For, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Lily gets the heck out of Kansas. She takes on a whole new identity when she gets to Las Vegas: from now on she’s Ruby Wilde. The transformation from the novel’s first section to the second is as drastic as that from black-and-white to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz film. It’s the same trajectory Lorena Hickok takes in Amy Bloom’s White Houses, from an abusive upbringing in the middle of nowhere to a new life in the big city. It’s no wonder that one of Ruby’s new showgirl friends has the nickname ‘Vivid’ – everything feels bigger and more vibrant in Vegas.
Ruby benefits from the kindness of strangers who sense that she’s new to town; thankfully, though, Church doesn’t give her protagonist unrealistically instant success. Instead, Ruby endures three months of auditions, some of them humiliating. One judge takes her aside and tells her she doesn’t have the necessary dancing skill but could be a great showgirl. Though initially resistant to using her body in such a way, Ruby warms to the idea and gets a job at the Tropicana. A makeover and shopping spree turn her into a real-life Cinderella. She feels like she’s made it now. But this is only the one-third point. Surely there is a fall to come?
The novel’s midsection is heavy on historical context: the Cold War, the space race, the MLK assassination. Some events are rather awkwardly inserted, and there’s a lot of name dropping and period fashions to evoke the late-1960s setting. (However, I did love the scene in which Ruby is on stage with Tom Jones.) In these years Ruby has a belated sexual awakening. At first she’s uncomfortable mingling with men after shows and feeling the weight of their expectations. Vivid, herself a victim of rape, guesses Ruby’s secret and encourages her to enjoy herself and sleep with anyone who catches her eye.
It’s a clichéd sex, drugs and rock ’n roll lifestyle that grows wearisome for the reader and for Ruby herself, who despite being named Vegas Showgirl of the Year in 1968 settles on a contingency plan, fashion design. She falls hard for a Spanish photographer, Javier Borrero, but their relationship turns sour. The expected crash finally comes – and it’s a big one, alright – forcing things to come full circle: the magic fades and she’s Lily Decker once again, having to rebuild her life from the ground.
Victims of abuse might be able to affirm Church’s picture of a cycle of violence and self-harm, but to me it felt excessively cruel. How much does she expect this character to take? There seems to be a certain lack of subtlety to the notion that Ruby has to wear costumes to hide from her past and her identity, and I was unconvinced by the suddenness of how she changes her mind and behaviour on several occasions and then finally ‘gets over’ her trauma as an adult. Also, as in Church’s previous novel, I found the frequency of the sex scenes and the level of sexual detail a little embarrassing.
However, I think plenty of readers will still take the resilient Lily/Ruby to their hearts, even if in the title’s grouping she doesn’t particularly stand out. The dismal Kansas and glitzy Vegas settings are equally powerful, and the enduring friendship between Lily and the Aviator is a beautiful one – probably the one element of the novel that will stick with me the most. While this doesn’t quite live up to the promise of The Atomic Weight of Love, it’s an atmospheric all-American story of self-reinvention and redemption.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. Her book reviews appear in the TLS and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as on her blog, Bookish Beck. She enjoys a good ceilidh.
Elizabeth J. Church, All the Beautiful Girls (Fourth Estate: London, 2018). 978-0008267933, 336 pp., hardback.