There is something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.
There are three women at the center of Megan Abbott's daring novel, Dare Me: Addy, Beth, and Colette. (Is it a coincidence their initials are A, B and C?) Beth is captain of the cheerleading squad and Addy is her trusty second-in-command and best friend. Beth, Addy and the rest of the squad are well aware of their place in the social hierarchy and their effect on other people. People are awe in them, maybe even a little afraid. Except Coach Colette. She is neither awed by nor afraid of them. She is not even all that impressed with them.
Colette’s effect on the cheerleading squad is immediate. She turns a bunch of pretty girls who by their own admission are mostly good at shaking their pom poms and turns them into athletes. They go from being skinny fat to strong and toned. Pom pom shaking and gyrating dance moves are replaced with gymnastics and pyramids. Cheering at football games is still fun but they learn to have bigger dreams, dreams of regional competitions and trophies. Colette awakens something in these high school girls they hadn’t known existed.
Colette quickly displaces Beth as the one the other cheerleaders look up to. There were other coaches before Colette but Beth was always the leader that really mattered. She was the captain. With Colette's arrival Beth becomes just another cheerleader and that is intolerable for Beth. She and the coach are both alphas on a squad of betas and as we well know, there can only be one alpha. So what can they do but take to the battlefield. Of course this is high high school and they are women so the battle is not fought with fists. Instead they use rumors, lies, manipulation, and the occasional boy as weapons. At first the battle between Beth and Colette is all snide comments and petty grievances. It's all fun and games until someone dies. Was it a suicide or a homicide? If it was a suicide why did the victim do it? If it was a homicide, who did it and why?
As much as anything, Beth and Colette battle for the heart and mind of Addy. Addy has been Beth’s loyal lieutenant for years. She was always been content to play number two, never wanting to be captain. But under Colette’s coaching Addy thrives. As another cheerleader says, Beth would have never have let Addy get so good. Plus, Colette is an adult, a cool adult who seems to have the perfect life and who invites the girls over for impromptu parties. Caught in the middle between her best friend and her coach, Addy doesn't know who or what to believe.
I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting much out of this book - just a quick read about mean girls, the horrors of high school, and some sort of redemption at the end. Instead, I got a taut psychological thriller about female friendship and competition. The battle of wills between Beth and Colette reminded me a bit of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, another great thriller.
Aside from being thriller, Dare Me is also a sports story. I have read and seen sports stories about football and basketball playing boys where the underlying theme is about how much the team matters, how they’re brothers who will be there for each other and the team despite the rivalries and brotherly infighting. I haven't read too many sports stories about girls and what being a part of a team means to them. For the girls in Dare Me cheerleading is serious. They are friends. They are a family. Addy, the main character, repeats again and again how strong she is becoming mentally and physically because of the sport. The sport and being a member of the team empowers her in a way nothing else has. Notwithstanding the backstabbing and the lies, it was refreshing to read a sports related story about girls on a team.
In addition to Gone Girl, Dare Me also reminded me of is the show Nashville and the character Juliette Barnes. Juliette is a country music powerhouse. Throughout season two she has to contend with up-and-coming singer Layla Grant who is eager to move up in the ranks of country music royalty. Layla can be sugary sweet one minute and nasty and manipulative in the next. I think the writers of the show want people to feel sorry for Juliette but whenever I see these two characters on screen I can’t help but think that Layla is just a younger version of Juliette, who herself can be quite nasty and manipulative. I imagine Juliette pulled the same kind of stunts as Layla when she (Juliette) was starting out in the music business. Similarly, Beth and Colette seem like younger and older versions of each other. They are both manipulative tyrants who need to be the center of attention.
Clearly I enjoyed this and would recommend it. It is a quick read and full of surprises. I looked up Megan Abbott's other books and they all seem a bit twisted. She is definitely an author I'll be reading more of.