“This is survival,” says Nora O’Malley, a teenage con artist holed up in a bank that’s being robbed. She’s nervously plotting her escape with her girlfriend, Iris, and ex-boyfriend and best friend, Wes. There are others trapped in the bank as well, but they can’t help—not like Nora can. Not like Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley can. See, they’re all one and the same, a Rolodex of all the identities Nora has known since she was a child. To Nora, the men with guns in the bank are just more men to con, more men she has to survive.
Nora was born into a life of lies and violence. Her mother, a con artist with predilections for abusive men and the finer things in life, bestowed different identities on her daughter, giving her personalities and hair colors to match. Nora learned to assume roles such as the good girl or the victim—whatever it took to win over a mark. As Nora calls upon the skills her mother taught her in order to outwit the trigger-happy bank robbers, author Tess Sharpe unveils the stories of Nora’s past identities and recounts how Nora’s older sister, Lee, drew her away from their mother to begin a new life.
Not since “Veronica Mars” have hardscrabble swagger, enormous grief and teenage noir been combined into such a satisfying piece of storytelling. The Girls I’ve Been is a heart-wrenching, perfectly paced, cinematic thriller with a Netflix adaptation helmed by “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown already in the works.
One scar at a time, Sharpe reveals the connections among Nora, Lee, Wes and Iris. She examines their wounds with care, rather than picking at them for shock value or cheap thrills. Every act of violence these characters have experienced, no matter how small, adds weight to their actions and deepens our understanding of who they are.
Nora is an astonishingly strong protagonist, though as this thrilling book argues, she shouldn’t have to be. Like many who have experienced abuse, Nora has often felt that she had no choice but to survive. “I told you,” she says to Iris. “I’m someone who survives. We’re going to survive together.” The Girls I’ve Been is a romance, a tragedy and a story about reclaiming agency and power. It is a triumph.