Monday, May 5, 2014

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: a review

Goodreads blurb:
Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy's best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they're seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls -- until the young new coach arrives.

Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach's golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as "top girl" -- both with the team and with Addy herself. 

Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death -- and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain. 

The raw passions of girlhood are brought to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of friendship, ambition, and power. Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott, writing with what Tom Perrotta has hailed as "total authority and an almost desperate intensity," provides a harrowing glimpse into the dark heart of the all-American girl.

This book came highly recommended by Leah Raeder, and since Leah is also the author of one of my favorite books of 2013 (and maybe ever), when she recs something I tend to listen.

So I went to check it out. I read the blurb and went, Cheerleaders, eh?


As a former goth, I have a complicated relationship with cheerleaders. This was about to get interesting.


In Dare Me, we have Beth, cheerleader mean girl classic, and the protagonist, Addy, who is only marginally less detestable. But that’s never been a problem with me. I love reading about characters I hate, love to hate, and everything in between.

The turning point that sets the main events in motion is the arrival of the new coach, Colette (but referred to as Coach throughout, by everyone. I was sure even her husband, her daughter, and her lover all called her Coach too, because she’s just such a perfect ice queen with flat abs and not a hair out of place). Coach starts off by coercing the cheer squad into death-defying stunts and unhealthy weight loss techniques.

And they love it. 

Soon after, there’s an illicit affair between ice queen Colette and a hot thirtysomething sergeant who was sent to Addy’s high school to recruit. Addy gets involved in the cover-up... and it all kind of snowballs from there.


This book is about high school cheerleaders, it's set in high school, and the denouement takes place during a high school football game. And yet it was published by an adult imprint, and there’s not a word about YA anywhere in the blurb.

There’s a reason for that.

For that same reason, I desperately wished Dare Me was YA. YA needs the rawness, the honestly, the lack of sugarcoating and sanitizing fictional teens for the sake of their moms’ peace of mind.

I never spent much time around cheerleaders (as you may have already figured out the first fifty times I’ve mentioned it) but the girls in this book were so real to me. They made me want to mail a copy of Dare Me to every YA editor out there: this is what real teens are actually like! There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls, the narrator observes toward the beginning of the book. Yes, these girls sometimes acts like monsters to each other and to complete strangers, for arbitrary reasons or for no reason at all besides sheer boredom. They have sex not because Twu Wuv or even a crush— they have sex with whoever, meaningless, sex, drunk sex, sometimes just to pass the time. If you were ever a teenager you remember how time dragged. They get trashed on everything they can get their hands on and they do really unhealthy things to lose weight, and it’s all depicted unflinchingly and even with a kind of bored detachment, like it’s all par for the course. These girls are self-destructive, mean, cruel, devoted, fierce. And the story isn't trying to teach them lessons about how you shouldn't lie to your best friends or make false accusations or throw up to get skinny or that non-cheerleaders are people too. That's just not what this book is about. 

Story-wise, Dare Me masquerades as a thriller, but in its twisted heart it’s a kind of coming-of-age story and a harsh, realistic meditation on girl friendship, cliques, popularity, and how far some will go to become (and remain) “Top Girl”—the one doing stunts at the top of the pyramid.

And how sometimes, they come crashing down in the process. Bones break and bruises blossom and blood splatters all around.


Dare Me will appeal to fans of gritty, realistic YA and beautifully-written adult thrillers that lean toward the literary. I (and Elvira here) give it five stars. 

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