Book Review: The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin

Posted February 10, 2013 by Renae // 12 Comments

Book Review: The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin

Title: The Girls of No Return
Author: Erin Saldin
Release Date: February 1, 2012
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

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.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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12 responses to “Book Review: The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin

  1. So glad to see a review of this book! I loved it, but I completely agree that the epilogue was unnecessary. I also alternately liked and hated Lida, Boone and Gia at various points in the novel, thought I think I ended up resolutely hating Gia by the end. It’s been awhile since I read the book, but I think you’re right, had Saldin left the question of Boone or Gia open it would have been a masterful, bold ending. Fantastic review!
    Lauren Elizabeth recently posted…Book Review: The Indigo Spell by Richelle MeadMy Profile

    • It’s always disappointing when an otherwise fantastic novels messes things up in the end game. But at least this wasn’t too disappointing, overall.

  2. I always struggle with unlikable characters and gray areas, and I never quite made it through This Is Not a Test. I’m not that kind of reader, I’m afraid. Not anymore. These days I’m all about the escapism. But I DID like Imaginary Girls and I might just go for it out of sheer curiosity.
    This is such a lovely review, btw! So well written. 🙂
    Maja (The Nocturnal Library) recently posted…Review: The Dead and BuriedMy Profile

    • Aw, thanks, Maja! That’s so nice of you.

      Hmm, yeah, if this type of book isn’t generally your thing, I probably wouldn’t suggest that you pick it up. For those who do enjoy the ambiguous shades of gray type characterization, this is great. Otherwise, yeah not so much. 😉

    • Read this! Do it, Christina. DO IT.

      Yes, this is all about Lida and her attempts to balance her conflicting friendships with Boone and Gia. The only “romance” is Lida’s infatuation with Gia, which (if I recall correctly), doesn’t get much past an awkward kiss or touch or something.

    • Yay, I hope you read this, Wendy! It’s really good and this is one of those books that should have gotten more of a marketing push when it came out, because it has the makings to be popular. I have no idea what Scholastic was thinking there.

      There actually isn’t much of a survivalist element, which was what I had been expecting. I mean, the school is in the middle of nowhere, but it’s still a school that has all the amenities that a school entails. It IS still the wilderness, though, so it’s not camp fun and games all the time. (Just thought I’d clear that up.)

  3. I’m so glad to see this one getting some blogosphere love! I thought it was really under read when in released last year, and it was easily one of my favorite contemporary reads of 2012 (though I don’t read many). Like you said, it was really powerful, and I actually liked the struggle with all the unlikable characters. I can totally understand your issue with the ending…it didn’t really bother me at the time, but I think I’d have been fine without it being there as well.
    Heidi recently posted…Review: Dualed by Elsie ChapmanMy Profile

    • I wish more people knew about this book! It’s definitely one of my favorite contemporary reads from this year.

      I think my thing was that if the ending had been left open-ended, I would have considered it to be more “literary” and edgy, which would have been more to my taste. I think the current ending is fine as is, though perhaps a bit too textbook.