Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott. She’s the most obscure writer I am fanatically obsessed with and therefore one of the writers I am most eager to promote to anyone looking for new authors. While I cringe at the idea of calling anything the “Next Gone Girl,” (or “Hunger Games,” or “Harry Potter,” for that matter) I will say that Abbott’s style can be compared to Gillian Flynn’s in that they both seem to prefer the crime/suspense/thriller area of writing but approach it in a refreshingly nuanced and skillful manner. Their writing is definitely high in psychological tensions and low in grizzled detectives being honey-potted by mysterious vixens. One trait that I feel should notably set Abbott apart though is her preference for young groups of female teens and preteens for her protagonists. I don’t mean the typical strong role model Katniss Everdeen type that seems to be to go to template for teenage girl hero either, as much as I enjoyed the Hunger Games. Her protagonists can get decidedly more… complex, or messed up if you don’t feel like being polite. This is definitely true of the book of hers I’m choosing to review in depth, Dare Me.
I chose to review Dare Me becuase, of all her books, this seems to be the easiest on to find at any random bookstore. I had to seriously scrape around for some others, but this one is usually front and present on the bookshelf. Other books of hers proved difficult to get without ordering them first, but this one was everywhere. They even usually have the cover turned out. Personally, I think it’s popularity has to do with how the cover seems to shows some sexy lips asking you to make them perform unspeakeable acts. (What can I say? the average bookstore visitor is a pervert.)
Fetching, no? Really, it was that cover and the plot description, which was usually something along the lines of “Cheerleaders get a new coach, shit gets real, scandal ensues.” Right off the bat, I felt almost kind of repulsed by the book, as much as I knew I loved Abbott. I figured this would be one of those books that fetishizes cheerleaders, both for aging readers with certain…. tastes, and for girls and apparently even grown women that idolize the very concept of cheering as the thing to define their entire life. Some ladies act like it led to their whole life’s peak. Sad. I certainly never fell for that line in high school, and I’ve got no patience for it as an adult. In the end though, and I feel like I speak for a lot of other readers here, I took a chance on the iffy subject for a beloved writer and ended up utterly blown away by the story.
I recall one recommendation for the book called it a cross between Heathers (a cult classic about high school cliques,) and Fight Club (a decidedly darker movie, arguably still about cliques, but manly ones.) I laughed out loud, but only because it was incredibly true in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll try to dispense with the pop culture references though and delve deeper into the book’s actual substance, because that’s what reading Abbott always makes me hungry to do.
I feel like Abbott enjoys writing young characters because she loves playing around with ambiguity in her work. These cheerleaders can’t always answer exactly how they feel about the outrageous events in the novel and how far they push each other because they themselves aren’t sure of their exact motives. So much of the narrative is young girls being jerked around by pointed texts, teenage girl gossip, and emotional gut reaction they all too often didn’t even understand themselves. I really don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so I’ll just say that hearing all the doubt and need tremor through narrator Abby’s account of events made me infinitely more sympathetic to those annoying girls with juvenile glittery hair bows tying up their hair in before the big game.
Abbott makes it very clear that the girls take so earnestly to cheer-leading when they realize how safe and certain of their own bodies they can feel. She also explores how readily the teen girls fall into the hive-mind like mentality the need to master to perform daring, synchronized feats of climbing, jumping and flipping, how it gives them something secure and powerful to fall into. The mentality becomes evidently more and more easy for the girls to slip into, on and off the cheer mats, and with that comes the danger. As one benched cheerleader remarks after seeing her team perform for the first time by the sidelines, “It’s like we’re trying to kill each other.”
I still can’t say I look anymore kindly upon some of the more grating cheerleaders I had to rub up against in the high school mosh pit after reading this book. They didn’t have a mysterious homicide to deal with after all, (to my knowledge anyway.) Still, Abbott picked a prime spot to plunge into and explore how dangerous that early, fluid stage of developing one’s identity can be. People remember their awkward teenage years, when they tried to find where they fit in with stupid looking clothes and stupid teasing. They don’t seem to remember, perhaps because they never even fully realize, like protagonist Abby, just how dangerous that phase could truly be.
The only thing that keeps all these girls in Dare Me from eating each other alive is how good the feeling of piling on top of each other during half-time, which I suppose almost makes the book sound as bad as the cover, but trust me. This story takes the sexy-lacquered up cheerleader face veneer and cracks it in half to spill forth a whole mess of anxieties, heartbreaks, and self-destructive death wishes.