In anticipation of the tv-series adaptation (which begins airing Sunday night on the USA network), here is a re-post of my review of Megan Abbott’s novel back on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books)
Don’t be fooled by the cover image, or the fact that Abbott’s sixth novel is set in the world of high school cheerleading. Dare Me isn’t some saccharine teen romance but rather a dark and sophisticated roman noir. To start with, the cast of high school girls here engage in some decidedly adult behavior (Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol! seems to be their decadent mantra). As cheerleaders they are not vapid, bubble-blowing gym-bimbos; more like “gladiators” who train gruelingly and perform extraordinary physical feats. This is bloodsport, both in terms of the terrible injuries suffered (bones snap and tendons pop “like a New Year’s champagne cork”) and all the infighting/backbiting as the girls vie to be Top Girl on the squad and in the eyes of the coach they idolize.
The novel traces the tremendous, transformative effect new young coach Colette French has on her squad, and the trouble this brings to the long-standing friendship between sixteen-year-old narrator Addy Hanlon and alpha-female Beth Cassidy (a jealous Beth resents Addy’s closeness with the coach). Addy’s problems, though, are far from typical high-school fare. When a character is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Addy finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secrets and deceptions–to the point where she doesn’t know whether she can trust either her old friend or her new mentor. With its dire plot complications, and its concerns with the limits/complexities of narrative viewpoint, Dare Me reads like a masterful mix of James M. Cain and Henry James.
Abbot’s prose has the precision and resonance of poetry (“Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning [down the shower drain]. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.”). The writing is highly sensuous, yet never descends into luridness, as seen, for instance, in the following description of a deep-tissue massage administered by Beth: “Her thumb slides up the diamond shaped middle of the calf, and notches there, working slowly, achingly, pressing down to the hardest place then sliding her thumb up, the two muscle heads forking. It’s like her thumb is a hot wand, that’s how I always used to think of it.”
Again, though, this is ultimately a dark and gritty story that Abbott’s narrator Addy is telling. There are strong overtones of American Gothic, with the novel’s central death taking place in a sparsely-occupied apartment complex called the The Towers (“it’s like a castle”). Drawn to the scene of possible crime (suicide or homicide? is the question at the heart of the mystery), Addy is forced to navigate the “gloomy dark” corridors, stepping along the way on the victim’s shotgun-scattered teeth.
Yet scariest of all in Dare Me is “witchy” and “vampiric” Beth, a pint-sized tyrant who seems to harbor more mean spirit than team spirit (“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” Addy warns us early on, anticipating the menace Beth will exude). She’s devious, manipulative, vindictive, but can hardly be reduced to a bitchy-it-girl stereotype. For all her brashness and razor wit, she is also a sad and wounded figure. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Beth stands as Abbott’s most memorable character creation to date.
Dare Me is an engrossing novel that will transport readers back to their own teenage years while simultaneously reminding them just how different the high school scene is for kids today, with all the fresh temptations and modern technologies at hand (the illicit sexual content of teens’ cell phones is integral to the novel’s plot). Abbott continues to break new ground, boldly setting her noir storylines in original milieus, and for those willing to dare the unfamiliar (rather than settle for the safely formulaic), an immensely rewarding reading experience awaits.