‘Meet Nora. Also known as Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley – the girls she’s been.
Nora didn’t choose a life of deception – she was born into it. As the daughter of a con artist who targeted criminal men, Nora always had to play a part. But when her mother fell for one of the men instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con herself: escape.
For five years Nora’s been playing at normal – but things are far from it when she finds herself held at gunpoint in the middle of a bank heist, along with Wes (her ex-boyfriend) and Iris (her secret new girlfriend and mutual friend of Wes… awkward). Now it will take all of Nora’s con artistry skills to get them out alive.
Because the gunmen have no idea who she really is – that girl has been in hiding for far too long…’
The Girls I’ve Been introduces the reader to Nora, currently a hostage in a bank heist, and not only Nora, but the other girls that she has lived as – girls who may well have existed for longer than Nora’s true self. If there is a ‘real’ Nora at all. Raised by a con-artist mother, Nora has been acting her way through life, becoming who and what her mother wishes her to be, to con criminals and dangerous men – arguably her mother’s own kind. Even her name has been taken from her, made to live and breathe each new girl her mother has created, and meant to absolutely embody each new persona, supposedly to keep her safe, but truly just to make her mother’s cons run smoothly and seem all the more real. Nora has been manipulated since her early years by a woman who plays at creating a new daughter for each new role she herself takes on, and fails to see her child as her ‘real’ daughter or what she is doing to her. As long as the con succeeds, that’s all that matters. And Nora has learned – not just from the girls she has been, but from a mother who pushes the limits of human understanding – just what is sometimes necessary for survival. And if she’s going to get out of the bank heist alive, she’s going to need all of the girls she was. Or is it the girls she is?
I liked that, despite what could be suggested by various blurbs of the book, the relationship between Nora, Iris and Wes doesn’t devolve into petty jealousy or squabbling over elements of past and current relationships. This is something they really don’t have time for in the circumstances in which they find themselves and I was glad to see that romantic jealousy didn’t get in the way of looking at the more important features of Nora’s relationships with Iris and Wes – namely what her past has done to her ability to function in relationships and what both Wes and Iris have happening in their own lives that affects their bond with her. Nora’s past is certainly dark and she has suffered hugely, but what the reader learns of Iris and Wes brings to light their own struggles, the subjects handled sensitively and not exploited for overly dramatic purposes, but to examine the facets of trust and what people will keep hidden and why. Each of them has secrets and is forced to show features of themselves that surprise the others, but to accuse Nora of being false is to shine a light on what they too have kept hidden and why. They all have pieces of themselves that they do their best to keep hidden, not because they fear being judged, but as a matter of survival and protecting themselves from themselves, and Nora’s way of surviving is far from the only way. Their relationships are a warm contrast to the one that she has with her mother, if coloured by similar pain and guardedness.
There is a huge amount to unpack about the behaviour of Nora’s mother, for while I found myself unable to gather much sympathy for her, given all that she makes Nora do and just how unwilling she is to see her own child as a little girl and not a tool that she can use, it can’t be denied that she becomes a victim too. I think there is more than one sign that suggests that she is mentally unwell, even before the last job that becomes her life, and between her games and those that Raymond plays, she becomes trapped in a world of her own delusional creating and his manipulation. It’s as if her mother never really exists in the real world and has forgotten who she was to begin with – it even feels as though she has children to use as tools and nothing more, simply to exist as accessories she can use to make her games seem more real. She is out of sync with reality and her treatment of Nora is abhorrent – even when her daughter is suffering and is in danger she has put her in, she never seems to summon any maternal feeling and is only concerned with how the rest of the game will play out. Though she takes the various cons seriously, they remain all she takes seriously, as if she cannot exist in the same reality as others or face being ‘normal’. Nora comments more than once that she can’t understand how her seemingly clever and perceptive mother falls for Raymond’s manipulation, but that she has demonstrated absolutely no understanding of emotions and feelings (beyond a notion of provocation, cause and effect) makes it easy to see how it happened: she was just conned on another level that she was unable to plan for. That the reader may intensely dislike Nora’s mother and yet sympathise with her for becoming the victim of all that she has orchestrated is a testament to the author’s skill.
The Girls I’ve Been was released on February 4th and is a sharp, brilliant thriller that I’m so glad to see has already been picked up for television. I would definitely recommend reading the book before any further media release, as the writing is simply fantastic and the book impossible to put down. Thank you, Team BKMRK, for sending me a proof!