We have cheerleaders at the high school where I teach, but they’re sure as hell not like the cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s compelling YA novel, Dare Me. These girls are vicious.
Addy Hanlon is the narrator of this sordid tale.
There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.
Her ‘girl’ is Beth Cassidy, an acerbic teen who spits out insults like bullets. Beth and Addy have been besties since they were young enough to “hang on the monkey bars, hooking [their] legs round each other.” Now they rule their school, part of a cheer squad that makes boys go weak in the knees and girls run for cover when they swagger down the hall, an impenetrable mass of venom.
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 happen.
The social order of things is thrown into disarray, though, when the squad gets a new coach.
The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all the that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators.
Colette French is demanding. On the second day she “takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers” and tells her to “fix it.” The girls discover they can’t fluster her, that she is already bored with their nonsense. Then, Coach dismisses Beth as captain, saying that she doesn’t “see any need for a captain.”
Addy knows Beth’s response, when it comes, will change everything, and it does.
Dare Me is a riveting look at the world of girls on the cusp of adulthood and the woman who allows them a glimpse of what waits for them on the other side. There are no parents here, no sane adults to pull back the reins. Even Coach, who seems dazzling and perfect to the cheerleaders, is soon revealed as damaged and flawed. Addy is particularly taken with Coach and as their relationship morphs into something more intimate, Addy realizes she’s been “waiting forever, my palm raised. Waiting for someone to take my girl body and turn it out.”
I can’t express how terrific this book is. The writing is dazzling; it was like a mouth full of pop-rocks, you know that candy that fizzes in your mouth? Watching Addy try to navigate her sixteenth year, despite the fact that the world of cheer-leading is totally alien to me, was a thing of horrible beauty.