This book feels exactly like a Netflix special that everyone needs to see—and it is my favorite book of 2021, so far. The Girls I've Been, by Tess Sharpe, has everything: drama, action, romance, deception, and teen angst (that is what it’s all about). This book has a little of something for everyone, and paired with the incredible plot line that follows a teen con artist—well it's hard to think of a reason not to read it. Maybe if you're a homophobe, the super progressive and realistic lesbian relationship wouldn't be for you. But, for the rest of us, it provides a refreshing take on a lesbian relationship that isn't just a fetishization of the teen girls.
The Girls I've Been is truly a testament to Tess Sharpe's writing ability: I finished it in less than 3 days because I just couldn't put it down. The story follows Nora, or should I say Ashley? It follows a girl who was raised to take on the identities her mother gave her, so that she could help con people. Luckily she was saved from that terrible life of crime and abuse at 12 by her older sister Lee.
But now, 4 years later, Nora finds herself stuck in the middle of a bank robbery where her previous life skills mean the difference between life and death for everyone. She, her girlfriend Iris, and her ex boyfriend Wes are all hostages to two psychotic criminals who freely take their anger out on those around them—especially the ones who stand in their way. The book itself is set up to slowly reveal Nora's horrific past as the bank robbery progresses in real time, highlighting the skills she was raised to perfect, as well as the mental turmoil it put her through. Sharpe also meticulously intertwines the complexity of Nora's relationships now and how they are affected by her past, making the book every bit as much a drama as it is an action thriller.
The very slow blow-by-blow of Nora's past gives the book a lot of depth, despite taking the entire book to fully uncover her back story. But honestly, the slow burn makes it that much more worth it. It gives the reader time to exhale between bank scenes and just enough time to inhale before watching Nora's twisted childhood unravel. It's also relieving to see Nora's progress, her change in mindset, and the work she has done with her therapist.
From a mental health standpoint, the book not only advocates for betterment and awareness but also provides an entire resources section at the end of the book that provides outlets for people—and it is such a diverse list too! It makes my pro-mental health awareness heart happy to see someone finally writing about such topics in a way that is not just meant to shun or demean people who get the help they need.
The Girls I've Been also thoroughly satisfies my progressive, leftist brain in so many small and subtle ways. For starters, the realism of the crimes and operations Nora witnesses and is involved in aren't over the top with fictional flare: they could've been pulled from a Dateline NBC episode. And secondly, it explores the corruption of America in a way that not even Republicans could get mad at. Also, the fact that the main character's girlfriend knows how to make a bomb provides just the anarchist genius the book needed to make it so well rounded.
Overall, The Girls I've Been lives up to its description: Nora is her mother's protégé. And that means there is literally never a dull moment. Having read it, I'm now super excited for the Netflix adaptation starring Millie Bobby Brown. I hope she does Nora justice, because with Nora’s personality and wit, it will be a shit show if Brown doesn't nail the character. I'm also curious to see who they cast as Wes and Iris—fingers crossed for a lesbian or bisexual actress and Wyatt Oleff.