Coming off of last year’s middle school girl-centered The End of Everything, Megan Abbott has graduated to high school with the cheerleader-centered Dare Me, another constantly surprising and refreshing crime novel smothered in the pain and confusion of young womanhood. This time out our narrator and protagonist is Addie Hanlon, a junior who serves as the faithful “lieutenant” of sorts to the beautiful and ruthless squad captain Beth Cassidy. When Beth’s rule is threatened by the young, gorgeous and mysterious new coach, Colette French, Beth starts upping her scary-as-hell game to hold onto control of the squad. But Addie is not immune to Coach’s charms either and soon finds herself caught between these two powers, both of whom have more darkness and secrecy within them than Addie (or the reader) could have ever imagined.
Now yes, dear reader, I’m being vague as hell here, for sure, but believe the Nerd when he says that that shit is for your sake. The juicier, more traditional crime plot elements don’t really go down until about half way through the novel, but before that there’s plenty of beautifully crafted prose, menace and tension to keep the pages rolling by while you still don’t fully have a handle on where the novel’s headed. And though when the mystery-ish part of the story starts to come more into view it is indeed masterfully done, both organic and slyly clever, the real reason to read this wonderfully original take on high school back-stabb-ery is the specificity of the world and characters Abbott has created.
Though you may think a book about treacherous cheerleaders may sound like a campy romp, Abbott makes it all seem plausible, makes it ring true. There’s certainly a heightened reality at play, the dialogue often too perfectly witty to be considered truly “real,” but such flourishes (as they tend to do so in Daniel Woodrell’s novels) only enrich the story – not cheapen it. She makes what could be fodder for a John Hughes flick into something both hugely dark and extremely emotionally complex, the hearts of the girls you dreamed about being or dating in high school made to seem like a truly horrifying place. With the character of the young married mother Colette French who gets everything she wants from her over-worked and devoted husband and feels smothered and trapped by her pedestaldom, Abbott also has something troubling to say about what possibly awaits these young beauties ten years into the future.
With the release of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in June and now Dare Me, the summer of 2012 has been all about the evil that lies beneath the shiny surface of the “beautiful girl.” If you think you have the stomach to see what’s under there, you’ll most likely be in for some of the best reading of the year.