Summary from Goodreads:
The Alice Marshall School, set within a glorious 2-million acre wilderness area, is a place where teenage girls are sent to escape their histories and themselves. Lida Wallace has tried to negate herself in every way possible. At Alice Marshall, she meets Elsa Boone, Jules, and Gia Longchamps, whose glamour entrances the entire camp. As the girls prepare for a wilderness trek, Lida is both thrilled and terrified to be chosen as Gia's friend. Everyone has their secrets – the “Things” they try to protect; and when those come out, the knives do as well.
This book does not sugarcoat its messages, nor does Erin Saldin attempt to make the reader feel good about herself. This isn’t a happy book; you don’t want to cuddle it and if you do end up liking the characters, you probably don’t want to hug them. The Girls of No Return is honest, sharp, and dark. It isn’t an action-driven novel, and the story unfolds slowly and, at times, uncomfortably. Above all, though, it is brilliant in its depth of emotion and style of execution.
Originally, I’d expected this book to be something along the lines of Survive by Alex Morel—girl lost in mountains, faces demons and ultimately finds her way out. I was wrong. If anything, this book reminded me of Courtney Summers’ and Jennifer Brown’s novels (with, perhaps, a hint of Imaginary Girls thrown in for good measure). At its core, The Girls of No Return is about the complicated relationships between teen girls, what friendship means, what it means to be honest with yourself. Saldin looks inside her characters and shows them all to be twisted, damaged people. In many ways this was an exhausting book to read, simply because of the raw emotions being portrayed.
The narrating character, Lida, has been sent to a “wilderness therapy” school as her dad’s last-ditch effort to fix her. Lida is broken and she’s tired of trying to make it work. She doesn’t engage in group therapy and she manages to alienate her cabinmates and most of the other students. Everyone, that is, except for two other girls. First there’s Boone, a rebel with a past she wears like a badge of honor. Boone doesn’t take crap from anyone, but for whatever reason, she decides to trust Lida with her secrets. And then there’s Gia, glamorous, enigmatic, and beautiful—everything Lida’s ever wanted to be. It doesn’t take long until Lida abandons Boone to chase after Gia, but Boone, true to character, won’t be left behind so easily.
Really, the interplay and dynamics between Lida and the two other girls was fantastic. As a reader, I rotated through alternately liking/hating all three of them. You know from the beginning that Gia isn’t being honest, but you also know that Boone probably isn’t trustworthy either. And Lida, stuck in the middle, is so far in denial that she wouldn’t know what a true friendship is if it jumped up and bit her.
But something has to give, and Lida has to make a choice between her “friends”—Boone or Gia?
And that choice is where we run into my single greatest problem with the novel: in the end, Erin Saldin does tell the reader which of the two girls Lida chooses. The final chapter, plus epilogue and prologue (the prologue is at the end in this particular novel, for reasons that become apparent whilst reading said prologue), were extranneous to the story, in my opinion. The second to last chapter was perfect. I think that it would have been better to leave the name out. Because in the end, I don’t think that WHO Lida picked made the slightest difference, because the end result would have been the same either way.
It’s like I saw the opening for a brilliant conclusion, but Saldin didn’t see it and just went for the most obvious route, and in doing so deadened a lot of the emotional impact this book had delivered previously.
The Girls of No Return is a book that makes you think. It’s full of emotional tension and unapologetic sadness and trauma. Like I said, Saldin doesn’t attempt to make the reader comfortable with her topic, but that doesn’t matter. She says what she needs to say, and she says it very well. This is a story about friendship that really goes beyond anything else written on the subject.