In “The Girls I’ve Been,” Tess Sharpe’s brilliant writing draws us into the lives of the three teens at the center of this young adult thriller. We meet them just as they are on the cusp of being held hostage at their local bank in rural California, and from the first chapter (the chapters are labeled with the time, and the amount of time that has elapsed since they were taken captive), we are mesmerized by Nora and her extraordinary narration of the events that are happening both in the present and also as she intersperses the present narration with snippets of her past that serve to explain who Nora is now.
Who is Nora now? She is an extremely complex person who is bisexual, brilliant, and ballsy. On the first page, she meets with her ex-boyfriend, Wes, and her new girlfriend, Iris, at the bank to deposit the monies they’ve raised for the local animal shelter. Wes, Iris, and Nora are all good friends, but this morning, things are awkward because Wes had just found out the night before that Iris and Nora are more than friends when he accidentally interrupted a romantic interlude. Then, after only two pages, the bank robbery begins.
Astute readers will notice, through Nora’s narrative, her uncanny ability to immediately recite details about the robbers: “White guy, six feet, maybe, brown jacket, black T-shirt, red ball cap, pale eyes and brows,” and her almost instinctive knowledge of what to do in stressful situations. She explains, “You never want to draw their attention. I know this because this isn’t the first time I’ve been here. I mean, I’ve never been in the middle of a bank robbery, but sometimes it feels like I was born in the line of fire.”
Nora is not exaggerating. As we grow to find out, through a series of flashbacks meticulously written to lead us into the most shocking of Nora’s past reveals, Nora is a survivor. And, as we quickly discern, Wes and Iris are survivors as well. We learn Nora’s story first simply because she’s the narrator. And a darn good one, at that. The story is divided into many parts, and many chapters are short — just a few pages. There’s a system for alerting us as to what the next chapter is about. Chapters regarding the current situation — the bank robbery — begin with the time and minutes of captivity elapsed and later include the weapons or assets that the three teens have, as well their plan to handle the situation. There are also chapters about Nora’s recent past with Iris and Wes, and through those chapters we learn about Nora’s sister Lee, with whom she lives, and how important Wes is in their lives. There are short chapters of phone transcripts between Lee and others, including the sheriff’s deputies and the bank robber. And then there are longer chapters, cleverly displayed on a gray background, that introduce us to Nora’s previous incarnations as Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie, and finally, Ashley. Each girl was part of Nora’s mother’s con as she targeted and stole from criminals who would not report her because of their own issues with the law. Nora’s job was to be the incarnation of the mark’s ideal perfect daughter, and her mother would give her three adjectives to remember and use as a guide for behavior, like “sweet, spirited, smart,” or “humble, faithful, modest.” Failure was not an option for Nora as a child.
This is not just a heist story, nor is it just a teenage drama. The intricately designed story weaves back and forth, from present to recent past, to past lives (metaphorically speaking) and presents three teenagers who have suffered through unimaginable tragedy and terror and emerged stronger, determined to do whatever it takes to protect each other. While there are difficult sections about abuse, there are also many more pages about sacrifice, honor, love, and resilience. There is plenty of action, but there are also snippets of humor. “The Girls I’ve Been” is many things and thus difficult to slot in one genre. But it is unquestionably compelling and honest. And while Nora’s mother is anything but a loving and caring mother, her sister Lee, who rescues Nora, is, in effect, a wonderful family member. Nora knows that Lee will do anything, go to any lengths, to keep Nora safe.
This is definitely a YA book, and I wouldn’t recommend it for most middle grade readers because of the violence, physical and emotional abuse, and suggested sexual abuse. But it’s also a book that adults will find fascinating and will appreciate for the lovely prose as well as the gripping plot. In fact, Netflix optioned the book and has already signed Millie Bobby Brown, star of “Stranger Things,” to produce and star in the movie. The author provides a wonderful summary of the book and a list of trigger warnings on her website.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Penguin Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.