Forget the ponytails and the nail polish. Look past the lip gloss and the glitter brows. It’s just war paint. The cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s terrific new novel, Dare Me, are really girl gladiators in training, with fierce hearts and dangerous obsessions.
“Ages 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.”
So says narrator Addy Hanlon, 16, as she recalls sitting on the gym floor with her BFF Beth Cassidy, who has been cheer captain since forever. Addy, four inches taller than nimble Beth, is happy to be her bad lieutenant. But then the squad gets a new coach, 27-year-old Colette French, who isn’t satisfied with sloppy chorus-line flips and pom-pom shakes. She collects the girls’ cell phones, makes them run bleacher splints, says they don’t need a captain.
Still, Beth, with her clenched jaw, isn’t one to cede power lightly. She watches as Coach drills the girls into a more precise and cohesive team, and notes how many now compete for her attention. A favored few are invited to her ranch-style house, where they meet her harried husband and toddler daughter. Addy finds herself singled out for Coach’s confidences, but her loyalties are tested when she becomes privy to the older woman’s affair with a local military recruiter. Then there’s a suicide. Or is it murder?
Addy is scared. Of what she knows and doesn’t know. And also of what manipulative Beth knows, or pretends to know. “Coach, Coach,” Addy thinks. “I wanted to be a part of your world, but I didn’t know your world was this.”
As in last year’s The End of Everything, Abbott is very good at mining the secret lives of girls, the intense friendships and rivalries, the hidden fears and vulnerabilities, the peer pressure, the paranoia. The last half of the novel unfolds like a fevered dream. Dare Me dares you to stop reading.
Open Book: I bought the e-book of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (Little, Brown). The term “cheerleader noir” isn’t original; I think it goes back to the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that reminds me that I don’t really like Dare Me’s cover, which is too much like HBO’s True Blood. Here’s a thumbnail of the UK cover; I like it better, even if it reminds me of the TV series Bunheads.