Book Review: Dare Me by Megan Abbott
For some reason, after hearing this book compared to “Heathers” and “Mean Girls”, I was expecting dark comedy. Dark, I got. Comedy, not at all.
Dare Me is a very dark look at the hearts of high school girls — their secrets, desires, power plays, and manipulations. The story focuses on Addy, lieutenant to cheer squad captain Beth, happy and secure in her number two role, always right at the heart of the power. Beth is, beyond doubt, a mean girl. The snide comments designed to undermine others’ confidence, the hip-shaking strides down the school corridor, the ability to put anyone, boy or girl, back in their place — their place being always subservient to Beth — these are Beth’s tools of the trade, her natural forté. Addy, however, has known Beth since elementary school and Pee Wee cheer, and they’ve been best friends ever since. Only Addy has seen past Beth’s facade and knows some of the inner working of Beth’s tumultuous and devious heart.
Disrupting the power structure and rocking it to its core is the arrival of a new coach. Coach French pegs Beth for what she is right away, knocks her from the top of the pyramid, as it were, and sets in motion a chain of events that turns disastrous very quickly, with emotional and physical casualties piling up along the way. Beth is not one to take insult or injury lightly, and she goes to war in her own patented, insidious way, with Addy caught in the middle and at risk of being pulled apart.
Dare Me presents a rather appalling peek inside the world of cheerleading, as the girls indulge in extreme dieting, punishing workouts, and casual self-induced vomiting in order to be at their fighting and flying best. The author attempts to describe the high physical risks involved in this sport as well, the peril of flying, pushing, pulling, and lifting, with only the other girls’ arms and attention keeping one’s head from crashing onto the ground. The pressure is intense, and the risk is real, and yet these girls keep throwing themselves into it, with applause and adrenaline — and a sense of cheating death — the reward for success.
I particularly liked this passage, as Addy explains the intensity and interconnectedness of their stunts:
Being part of a pyramid, you never see the pyramid at all.
Later, watching ourselves, it never feels real… It’s nothing like it is on the floor. There, you have to bolt your gaze to the bodies in your care, the ones right above you.
Your only focus should be your girl, the one you’re responsible for the one whose leg, hip arm you’re bracing. the one who is counting on you.
Left spot, keep your focus on the left flank. Don’t look right.
Right spot, keep your focus on the right flank. Don’t look left.
Eyes on the Flyer’s eyes, shoulders, hips, vigilant for any sign of misalignment, instability, doubt.
This is how you stop falls.
This is how you keep everything from collapsing.
You never get to see the stunt at all.
Eyes on your girl.
And it’s only ever a partial vision, because that’s the only way to keep everyone up in the air.
This sense of not seeing the whole picture, of just focusing on the part you need to see in order to avoid collapse, applies to Addy and her slow discovery of the secrets and deceptions going on all around her. As manipulation piles up on top of manipulation, tragedy inevitably strikes, and Addy is left to piece it all together.
Dare Me was a quick but engrossing read, well written in a tone that conveys passion, devotion, fear and glory. It terms of the plotting and betrayals, as well as the dark undertone present in every passage, I was reminded most of The Basic Eight, but without the humor or levity to counteract the blackness. High school and friendships can be a true battlefield, and Dare Me portrays it in scary vividness, collateral damage and all.