The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe
Nora O’Malley’s been a lot of girls. As the daughter of a con-artist who targets criminal men, she grew up as her mother’s protégé. But when mom fell for the mark instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con: escape.
For five years Nora’s been playing at normal. But she needs to dust off the skills she ditched because she has three problems:
#1: Her ex walked in on her with her girlfriend. Even though they’re all friends, Wes didn’t know about her and Iris.
#2: The morning after Wes finds them kissing, they all have to meet to deposit the fundraiser money they raised at the bank. It’s a nightmare that goes from awkward to deadly, because:
#3: Right after they enter bank, two guys start robbing it.
The bank robbers may be trouble, but Nora’s something else entirely. They have no idea who they’re really holding hostage…
Nora O’Malley has a history, and for now, she’s buried it down deep.
All that matters at the moment is depositing this fundraiser money at the bank without making things any more awkward between her, Wes, and Iris. Quick, in and out, done. Everybody can go their separate ways, and it’s easy.
But a bank robbery in progress means it’s anything but easy, and Nora will have to draw on every girl she’s ever been just to survive. The question is, which girl will walk out of that bank today? Nora, or someone else entirely?
If Leverage had a YA novel equivalent, this would be it.
Chances are, if you’ve been around this blog or my Twitter long enough, you know that Leverage is pretty much my all-time favorite TV show. It’s about a bunch of thieves using their skills to make the morally bankrupt rich absolutely miserable, and I eat that up. (Look at the capitalistic hell we live in. Can you blame me?) And while Nora O’Malley doesn’t strictly have a professional crew and intentional heists on the brain, she’s got a lot of the other qualities that ring a similar bell.
For one, she’s been doing this for years. She’s been so many different girls, picked up so many different skills, and lived a number of different cons under her mother’s wing. She isn’t some wannabe con; she’s the real deal, born and raised.
More importantly, though, she’s running through this moral gauntlet. How far is too far? How can she save everyone and still prevent the robbers from getting what they want? And what’s the cost going to be for her? It’s possible that after today, there’s no turning back, no more escape, and every decision is fraught with these different tensions. She’s trying to run a one-woman con, with some help from Wes and Iris, and watching her dance two steps ahead of the robbers whenever she can is a treat.
“I am done being fodder. I’ve become the cannon instead.”
The Girls I’ve Been stands out for its tight, jagged narrative, this is deeply true. It’s a thriller to the last, and worth every single turn of the page. But what really makes it stand out is the way it approaches trauma.
See, Nora O’Malley was a child when she ran cons with her mother. She wasn’t a participant so much as a pawn, until the day she escaped. Her history is one violent bundle of trauma that follows at her heels everywhere she goes. And even though she sees a therapist now, is working through some of that trauma, it sinks its crooked teeth into her without remorse. All of her skills go hand in hand with cons that hurt her deeply, indeliby.
And somehow, Tess Sharpe handles it all with an incredible grace. This book is jagged. It’s fast and brutal and sometimes a little bitter. Occasionally, it’s funny, too. But as Nora’s past unfolds, her narrative is fixed on becoming who she wants to be, rather than the girl others expect her to be. On top of that, it’s about recognizing the harm others did to her, and not feeling like she has to forgive them or blame herself. She has to accept that she was protecting herself, and in a way, protecting many, many more people. That doesn’t make her a bad or violent person.
It makes her a girl shouldering a great deal of trauma, and it makes her a girl ready to do things on her own terms.
The year isn’t over, but The Girls I’ve Been is probably a strong contender for my favorite book of the year.
That’s how incredible this novel is. Fast-paced, tightly structured, and outrageously rich in characterization, everything about it leaps off the page with outstanding vibrancy. Throw in some clever formatting for Nora’s history and the bank robbery itself, and you have a true gem of a book.
I’m not sure what else I could tell you that might sell you on this book. That Nora uses the phrase “bisexual city” in a brilliant way? That the queer rep is outstanding and a little messy and complex? Or even that when our protagonists argue, they argue over things worth arguing about?
Still, I stand by it: this could very easily be my book of the year, and I think it’ll be hard to unseat it. ❤️
CW: violence (including gun violence), gore, gambling, child abuse, homophobia, domestic abuse, pedophilia, sexual assault, rape threats, teen pregnancy