Megan Abbott’s Dare Me was much more chilling than I’d expected. Remember high school? Friendship is important no matter how old you are, but somehow, in high school, the status of friend took on an almost do or die quality. Friendship was a status symbol, as was the ever elusive BFF tag. This is not to diminish high school friendships — many of the deepest, most lasting friendships I have were forged in high school. Still, the thrill of having a popular classmate, the Queen Bee of whatever social group, notice you, even validate you, seems to have been strongest in high school.
Dare Me is a cheerleading novel, depicting a world Bring It On and Sweet Valley never revealed. Cheerleading in Dare Me is like ballet in Center Stage: tough, competitive, borderline physically abusive. Yet unlike Center Stage or any similar sports movie, Dare Me uses cheerleading as the backdrop for an exploration of female teenage friendship and its entrenched social hierarchy. We have passages about cheerleading, poetic descriptions of bodies knifing through the air in death defying stunts, yet these descriptions never feel romantic like, say, Chris Cleave’s depiction of cycling in Gold felt romantic. There’s anger and defiance in Abbott’s descriptions of cheerleading stunts — in the parlance of her characters, a big fuck you, bitches, watch me fly.
The story is narrated by Addy, lifelong lieutenant of cheerleading captain Beth, until Coach French takes over the cheerleading squad, and wins Addy over. In some ways, Coach French is the kind of inspirational leader/mentor young people long for — she believes in the squad’s competitive potential, and has the ability to make the members exceed their limitations. She also takes her role too far, demanding both athletic excellence and eating disorder level diets from her squad.
What makes Coach French truly creepy however, is that she is a Mean Girl that never grew up. She clashes immediately with Beth, mostly because there can be only one Queen Bee, and the whole idea of a woman in her late twenties waging war against a high schooler for clique supremacy shows just how lonely and messed up Coach French is. She tells Addy that Beth’s scheming is amateur, yet ironically, her own tactics are very high school. For example, to cut Beth down to size, she fires her as cheerleading captain (even removes the role completely) and assigns Flyer (the star in squad routines) to a girl Beth always picks on. This could have been an empowering move by an adult, but Coach French’s glee in seeing Beth’s frustration keeps her just as immature as her adversary.
Beth is hardly a character that evokes sympathy — she’s bitchy and manipulative, and she tears down other girls just to win the battle against Coach French. Yet, buried deep inside is a touching vulnerability, most clearly seen in her friendship with Addy. At several points in the story, she calls Addy stone cold, tough, a fox. “It was always you,” she says. Addy may have been Beth’s second-in-command, but we see how much the power dynamic is really reversed from Beth’s point of view. Even though Addy doesn’t realize it, Beth really craves her approval, her validation, above all, her friendship. So when Addy, like the rest of the squad, becomes enthralled with Coach French, Beth’s battle against the coach becomes personal — much more than supremacy over a cheerleading squad, it’s a battle to be Addy’s BFF. Dare Me dares to explore just how far some girls will go to win such a battle, and kudos to Abbott for not holding back.
Dare Me is ultimately Addy’s story, however. At the centre of Coach French and Beth’s power struggle, Addy is embroiled in a lot of seriously messed up events, and when everything seems to be about power dynamics, she is unsure who she can trust. Addy is in a state of flux, both uninterested in going above her lieutenant role and secretly yearning to be the Flyer on the squad, the Queen Bee as it were. Well, why not me? she asks. Why not, indeed?
Dare Me didn’t blow me away. It started off slow for me, possibly because Abbott’s language sometimes slipped into Virgin Suicides-style philosophizing and navel gazing, e.g. an early rumination on how long it takes to wash off the glitter after a game. The whole cheerleading-as-metaphor angle also seemed overdone at times — at one point, a former squad member comments that being a spectator rather than a participant for the first time made her realize that the cheerleaders looked like they were killing themselves, literally. The comment was just overly dramatic, and the message far too hammered home.
However, Dare Me definitely exceeded my expectations. A dark and twisted take on friendship and cheerleading as blood sport, Dare Me thrills and disturbs.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.