i am disappointed in each and every one of you who never told me about this book’s existence.
this book is the darker and more plausible, real-world version of beauty queens, which is a book i adored, so i’m not making a quality-judgment here with that “p” word, just a comparison.
it is a book about girls, and the sometimes horrible/sometimes beautiful way that they operate within the world of girl.
it takes place at the alice marshall school for girls, a sort of outdoor reform school for wayward girls – girls for whom the traditional school system has been unsuccessful in one way or another. located deep in the middle of idaho, on two million acres of wilderness, it is a combination of classes, group therapy, and strenuous physical activity meant to strip away the attitudes and posturings these girls have cultivated as their armor in order to help them identify and come to terms with the root of their own damage; their “thing” which has come to define them .
but it also isolates a bunch of troubled girls in the middle of nowhere, away from their families and their routines, and sets up a very specific hierarchy and support system that can either be deeply rewarding or gasoline-on-campfire. it is about friendship, but also about betrayal.
the best and most positive relationship in the book is the one between karen and gwen. in the outside world, they would probably never have traveled in the same social circles; gwen is all goth-emo while karen is a hippie, but here they are just two girls who have found each other, and are drawn to each other as they are. they are inseparable, and i really liked their bond, especially as it was only a quiet background-note, a healthy secondary plotline to the larger and more problematic story on the main stage.
the focus of the novel revolves around boone, gia, and the narrator lida. lida is writing this book, after the events have taken place, as a healing exercise, and so the truth about what happened one fateful night can come to light, and to expose all the circumstances that made it possible. it is a confession, apology, love letter, and explanation of the truth as she witnessed it.
boone is the undisputed leader of the school. she is all tough girl swagger and dark past; smart, capable, and independent. she is the one who hazes the new girls, having been there longer than anyone else and seen all there is to see. she is all surface tough, but is also fiercely loyal. you know the type, sure, but saldin manages to give her a spark all her own, and she doesn’t come across as a caricature.
lida is in awe of boone, but also wary. they live in the same cabin, but boone’s prickliness does not lend itself to immediate friendship – she’s the kind of girl you have to earn.
gia arrives on the scene, all charismatic and beautiful and mysterious, and she and boone immediately become rivals. gia is distant and seemingly above it all, but she singles lida out as someone to share quiet moments with; an outsider amongst outsiders. lida immediately comes under gia’s spell, and shares things with her that she has told no one else.
i found this book on a list of lesbian YA novels, but i do want to caution readers approaching it with that in mind. while it is very much about girl-love and crushes and the emotional toll of first love, this is not a relationship novel in that sense. it is more about coming under the spell of another person, and in this case it just happens to be another girl. however, it is so perfectly-written and painfully accurate, it is relatable to any orientation.
there are so many great moments of emotional impact here: the girls dancing in their own ways to the same music, the painful and illuminating reunions during parents’ weekend, the moment when lida’s “thing” is obliquely exposed, and boone’s response to it…
and, of course, the huge climactic scene, which is maddeningly cut off right before the payoff, and is handled so perfectly for me. it involves lida forced to make a terrible decision, which decision is not revealed until a few chapters later, and it is so huge, horrible, and above all real, that it gut-punched me, and although it broke my heart, it felt exactly right. horribly, regrettably, awfully right. but, you know, wrong. just realistic.
there are so many things to love about this book, i can’t even get into it. i hope she has many more books in her.