“How many of us have seen our friends stepping into a bad situation and worried over what—if anything—to say, knowing our counsel is unwanted?”
Head to Las Vegas and leave your past at the door. That is Lily Decker’s hope when she trades in her brutal childhood in Kansas for the glamour of the Vegas Strip in 1957.
Elizabeth J. Church’s new novel, All the Beautiful Girls, follows Lily through her difficult, abusive childhood, when her only trustworthy adult is the man who had caused the car accident that killed her parents. But bright lights and big dreams are always on the horizon, and at 18 years old, Lily, calling herself Ruby Wilde, discovers a showgirl life filled with parties, new friends and every luxury she ever wished for. But her heart was broken at a young age, and some pain cannot be avoided forever.
Church shares an in-depth look at the questions that drove the creation of this heartbreaking, unforgettable character.
It’s frightening to admit this, but I’ve entered my seventh decade on this earth, and not only have I often made poor choices in love, but I’ve seen many others do the same. During the years that I practiced divorce law, I saw dozens of couples who had entered into unwise allegiances, including many who were confoundingly loath to let go. They paid enormous sums of money so that they could continue to fight, sometimes over such things as who would win custody of the good brownie pan or visitation schedules for dogs (and whether the dog bowls should travel along)
It all made me think. How do we choose our lovers? Our partners for life? What factors, what previous experiences, come into play? And why do women who are talented, intelligent and strong, who possess financial security and enviable careers, enter into relationships in which they are demeaned and sometimes even endangered? How many of us have seen our friends stepping into a bad situation and worried over what—if anything—to say, knowing our counsel is unwanted? And why oh why is it only in hindsight that we see people for who they really are?
My novel’s protagonist, Lily (who adopts the stage name Ruby when, at age 18, she heads to Las Vegas and becomes a showgirl), is strikingly beautiful. She’s bright and eager to contribute to a world that, in the late 1960s, is in the process of dramatic change. She’s been pummeled in early life; her family is killed in a car accident when she’s just 8 years old, and she’s forced to live with a stoic aunt and an uncle who sexually abuses her. Despite the brutality of her childhood, Ruby works hard and rises through the ranks until she is recognized for her talent and beauty as “Showgirl of the Year.” She can have her pick of any man—or men. And yet, Ruby falls for a man who, while gloriously handsome and sexy, also has a dark side. Ruby is the friend we’ve all had (or been): She is the friend we worry about and struggle to comprehend.
Countless factors shape our wants and needs in a partner. There is that make-or-break physical attraction, that chemical pull—because without it, we simply look the other way. Perhaps a person comes along at a time when we are particularly vulnerable, or when we have a compelling need that the person seems to meet. We see what we want or need to see. And what’s particularly interesting to me is that we let those initial, needful first impressions harden into a vision we come to believe is reality.
Maya Angelou has said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” It’s a wonderfully true statement, and her wording is important. She doesn’t write, “When people tell you who they are”; she writes, instead, “show.” It’s an elegant variation on the truism, “Actions speak louder than words.” She also encourages us to avoid giving someone the benefit of the doubt dozens or hundreds of times over.
After completing All the Beautiful Girls, I came to the conclusion that what we must be careful about with love is what we tell ourselves. How often are we excusing behavior we’d never tolerate in a friend or acquaintance? What are we telling ourselves that justifies our staying in a relationship? Why are we working so very hard to justify poor behavior?
I think the most important thing I learned in writing this book is that just because I understand a behavior—why it might occur, what things might lead someone to be ferociously angry, cruel, cutting or simply careless—does not mean I have to tolerate the behavior. I wonder, though, if these are the kinds of lessons that can be learned in the abstract. Perhaps we first have to travel down the wrong road, trip and stumble, before we can find the right path to love.
Photo credit Anna Yarrow