If I wasn’t already obsessively hooked on Megan Abbott stories I probably would have grabbed this book up for the cover itself —a close-up of a paint-it-red pair of lips biting their lower lip flirtatiously with the words “Dare Me” in big, bold, white inkiness. It’s a great cover. However, regardless of what it looks like, I know that Abbott will deliver the kinds of things I like in a book: noir, ratcheting tension, and most especially, murder.
Dare Me, like Abbott’s previous novel The End of Everything, deals with the wants and desires of teenage girls and the machinations involved in making those longings come to life. Addy Hanlon is a sixteen-year-old girl who is heavily involved in cheerleading as is her best frenemy Beth Cassidy. Abbott introduces us into their world of “twizzler-red” phones, binge drinking, starvation training diets, and the intense competition to do the perfect flip—to glitter the hardest.
Abbott creates a restlessness that only racing through the pages can cure. Each chapter swells just a little bit more than the last, building on the mystery of the incident that we know Addy is involved in from the first lines of the prologue: “Something happened, Addy. I think you better come.” From that moment it’s easy to become embroiled in the preoccupations of the girls in the squad: parties, men, and the all-encompassing training for regional finals. Daily life underlined by the knowledge that something terrible is coming.
Addy and Beth’s world of competitive cheerleading is put into sharp focus when the new coach arrives, disrupting the ecology that Beth has mastered as captain of the squad. With Addy as her right hand they have ruled the school’s halls by exuding the kind of power that only high school cheerleaders with their uniforms and their masks of makeup can generate. Coach French is a cool and contained woman who manages to gain the squad’s allegiance and respect via discipline, knocking Beth from her captain’s perch in the process. Addy is at the top of this girl-woman triangle, becoming both wary of Beth and her full-out hatred of Coach, and, like all the other girls, enamoured of Collette (Coach French).
Coach, with her tweezer-like meting out of praise, her late-night-drinking-with-the-squad sessions, her away-at-work husband, and the darkness that Addy is drawn to. Addy also wants to be her friend and this is where Abbott is at her most subtly excellent because even though this girl seems tough and self-contained, Addy really only wants what most teens desire—to be special (to be the top girl in the pyramid), and to be liked by the cool kid (or in this case the cool Coach). Abbott sets Addy up in such a way that we’re immediately drawn to the nuances in her character: naïve one moment and sly the next and, of course, at the centre of dangerous maneuvering.
How easily Abbott persuades us that this sparkly world of cheerleading is the norm; where girls can fly and adults confide their closest secrets to their charges. And she does it in such a way that sucks us into feeling the tight itchiness of being a teenager again, of being both uncomfortable and over-confident; of seeking approval and dismissing authority; of knowing everything and nothing. I didn’t want to like this world of cheerleading but the dichotomy of shiny sequins and dark motives snuck up and overtook me in satisfyingly Megan Abbott style.