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Onyx reviews: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Is there any world more confusing to the average person than that of teenage girls? This is the society that Megan Abbott explores in Dare Me. The novel is told from the first person perspective of Adelaide (Addy) Hanlon, a senior member of the cheerleading squad. She and her best friend Beth Cassidy have run the show for years, with Beth as the captain and Addy as her lieutenant and right hand.

The power dynamic changes when their coach leaves and Colette French takes over. French has a different approach. She sees how lazy the girls had been and is determined to whip them into shape and become competitive. She quickly gleans the group's dynamic and eliminates the position of captain. Beth doesn't take this unexpected fall from power well. Her attitude toward the squad becomes more lackadaisical. At first, the other girls resent the aches and pains the rigorous new drills cause, but they begin to band together and take pride in their accomplish­ments. For the first time, someone is taking them seriously and wants them to excel.

French pays special attention to Addy, identifying her as a young woman with potential. By the same token, she sees that Beth is trouble, a bully who terrorizes the other members of the team. Add in a little psychic power and the setup for the novel wouldn't be much different than Carrie. These teens are often the very epitome of Mean Girls and their borderline psychotic behavior seems drawn from Heathers. However, this isn't a novel about an ugly duckling lashing out after she's humiliated. The pivot around which everything balances is a death that doesn't occur until near the midpoint. 

Addy forms a crush on the coach, hanging around the parking lot like a love-struck schoolboy and wrangling invitations to her house. When she and Beth learn something shocking about their coach, their reactions are different. Beth thinks she can use the information as leverage and Addy is simultaneously jealous and protective. She allows herself to be conscripted into becoming an accomplice in French's secret life. She learns that there are many ways to be manipulated and be taken advantage of. Also many ways to manipulate and take advantage of others. There's so much else going on that at times it's easy to forget that at it's heart Dare Me is a noir murder mystery.

Abbott's focus is very narrow. The school has other teachers, but they don't play a significant part. Parents are not quite relegated to the squawking nonsense of Charlie Brown adults, but almost. One might expect a lot of drama between the cheerleaders and the football players for whom they are leading the crowd's cheers, but the sport on the field is barely mentioned. 

For a book involving energetic, healthy young people, there's also an astonishing shortage of sexual gymnastics. That's not to say that they are prudes. Sex, when it happens, is used more as a weapon or a tactic than for any kind of emotional or romantic connection. However, the book reeks of sexual tension. It's like gasoline vapor awaiting a spark. Their relationships and their lives are as fragile as the human pyramids they form. A moment of weakness among any of the team can cause it all to come crashing down.

Abbott has firm command on the lives of her cheerleaders. She understands the issues that are important to them, which are primarily superficial. Weight, appearance, limberness, reputation. She knows the lengths to which they are willing to go to achieve all of these. Addy and the other girls are waiting for something significant to happen in their lives. Their boredom can be dangerous, but their introduction to the adult world is more than a coming of age. That oft-used term implies a gradual awakening to the world around them. For Addy and their friends, nothing is gradual. It's more like a bombshell going off in their midst. Even adults are confused and searching for something significant in their lives, the girls learn. Adulthood does not convey wisdom or certainty.

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