“At first, cheer was something to fill my days, all our days. Age fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin. There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
So says Addy Hanlon, narrator of Megan Abbott’s latest book, Dare Me. And you better believe it.
I’ll make no bones about being a huge fan of Abbott’s work. Her first four books, set in America in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, took classic noir themes and characters and gave them a mighty twist. The End of Everything, her break out work, was a deceptively simple coming of age tale about a missing girl in an anonymous middle class American suburb in the 70s.
Dare Me takes place in the present, in another part of the great expanse of nameless US suburbia. Addy and Beth have been best friends for years and are the top dogs in their high school cheerleading squad. Beth is the captain, Addy always her faithful lieutenant. Cheerleading and their commanding place in it form the ground zero of their world. “Let’s face it,” Addy says at one point, “we’re the only animation in the whole drop ceiling, glass bricked tomb of a school. We’re the only things moving, breathing, popping.”
Their carefully constructed social hierarchy is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach. She is like nobody the girls have ever seen – cool, steely, sophisticated, domineering. After a brief battle of wills Coach French usurps Beth and starts pushing the girls to do more than just look good on the field. She gets them to work as a team, to do things with their bodies they never thought they could. And they start to like it. Even more disturbingly, they start looking forward to the danger.
Addy finds herself particularly drawn to the new Coach and away from her old friend. But Beth is not a character to be trifled with or take rejection lying down and marshals her considerable resources to plot revenge. As Addy puts it: “Beth has always known people – friends of her older brothers, sons of her mother’s exes, the brother of the woman from Peru who used to clean her house – that no one else knows or even sees. Her reserves of information, objects, empty houses, designer handbags, driver’s licenses and prescription pads seems limitless.”
When a peripheral male acquaintance of the girls is found dead, it’s unclear whether murder, suicide or an accident is the cause. As the final game of the season approaches and the squad plans its attack like a group of crack marines about to hit Fallujah, Addy begins to wonder exactly what her old friend may be capable of.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Dare Me could have so easily been just another tale of teenage angst with a bit of an edge. But Abbott delivers a much more challenging story, one that’s not afraid to question some major sacred cows about young women and what they’re capable of. Abbott nails all her characters, particularly her two female leads, Addy and Beth. She transforms their cadence, feelings, fears, and secrets into something very sinister, part dark noir, part suburban Lynchian nightmare.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
Dare Me follows on from the Megan Abbott short story Cheer, which you can read here.