Following the indie success of her first novel, “The Atomic Weight of Love,” Elizabeth Church returns with “All the Beautiful Girls,” a coming-of-age story about the resilience of a 1960s Las Vegas showgirl. There’s a lot to unpack here.
After surviving a car crash that kills her parents and sister, Lily Decker moves in with her aunt and uncle. At just eight-years-old, her life is molded by this tragedy, this accident. She befriends “the Aviator,” the man who killed her family. He’s a good man who made a mistake, and he’s pretty much the only person on her team, helping her to navigate what I can only categorize as The Worst Childhood Ever.
She grows up with her heart set on leaving her hometown the second she can, and that’s exactly what she does. She gives herself a new name, transforming into Ruby Wilde over the course of a bus ride to Sin City. She’s on her way to be a troupe dancer, and she ends up working as a showgirl. After spending her childhood pining for a version of the American dream, she spends her adult career tripping over the many disillusions of it.
Most of Ruby’s story reads like this — a series of missteps on a road paved with imperfections. I had trouble holding her close to my heart, and I think it’s because she’s too beautiful. She’s a manic-pixie-dream showgirl, and in all of her faults and failures, she’s flawless. Church created a character that doesn’t just inhabit the traits she was given — she drips with them. Ruby is soaked in ephemerality, constantly lusted after, and it makes it hard to place her in our own world. Church writes her heroine to be graceful in a blustering town, resilient in a marred home, stunning as she goes through puberty. She isn’t real.
That’s my biggest beef with the book: It’s not real. Ruby gets breaks when she needs them, not a moment too soon or a beat too late. She befriends a man on her ride to Vegas who, if he existed in any other story (and especially our own world), would have been creepy with her. But instead of predatory advances and suggestive conversations, Ruby gets an immediate safety net upon her arrival in the city. Church builds her life to be hard, but not too hard. She pads it, making it just horrifying enough for us to sympathize with Ruby but embellished enough for us to realize that we could never be Ruby.
The novel’s dialogue is no different. It’s unnaturally eloquent and blasphemously fluid. The conclusions Ruby comes to and her delivery of them are far too astute and smooth to ever emerge from an actual person. When she finally arises healed from a cruel relationship with photographer and all-around lowlife Javier, she pours herself out to the Aviator. She gives him everything — the nights with her uncle, the days with her aunt, the evenings with Javier — only to end by saying, “That’s what I’ve learned lately. Javier. My accident. Everything — it’s just life.”
Yeah, it’s life, but people don’t speak like this. Even in her pain and her mistakes, she still comes across as impeccable, figuring out life at an unrealistically fast pace. Ruby is so gorgeous and so striking that it’s hard to read her as anything short of heartbreaking — a version of a character who only slightly resembles pieces of the people we strive to be.
And maybe the point is supposed to live somewhere along these lines, somewhere in the moments where Ruby is so damaged by the world around her and punished for her porcelain prowess that she can’t help but shine in her provocative resilience. And maybe I’m just jealous. I have a hunch, though, that Ruby’s perfection is more a product of her maker than a consequence of her misfortunes. That being said, “All the Beautiful Girls” was an entertaining read. It took me to an era I’ve always wanted to see in a city I never dreamed of seeing it in. Church wrote a big world for a girl who was always made to feel small, and she gave her growing room. It was fun — albeit a little too beautiful.