The high school cheerleaders at the center of Megan Abbott’s dark, psychological young-adult thriller Dare Me are a living, breathing unit with indistinguishable pieces. They travel as a pack, ponytails swaying, skirts hiked up to here, leaving a wake of glitter and spray tan stains.
There is, of course, a hierarchy to the system: Beth is the leader, a barking, bitching, heckler who finds her squad-mate’s scabs and flicks them. Second in command is Addy, who has known Beth forevs and has recently tested branching out to a new bestie at cheerleading camp — but returned to her old friend under the weight of Beth’s wrath. The rest of the girls are mostly faceless minions who know the score: Addy is Beth’s girl. Don’t even bother trying to penetrate that two-girl club.
Their former coach, a middle-aged gym-teacher sort they refer to as Fish, is replaced by Colette French, with her cool demeanor and perfectionism. The 27-year-old changes the dynamic of the squad by squashing Beth’s power and becoming the girls’ new source for approval. Coach plans to turn the team around and make them competitive, contenders for titles. Practices increase in intensity and she casually tugs at the resident chesty sexpot’s tummy and commands “Fix it.”
First, Coach reveals little, then she slowly lets the eager girls into her life and her home life — which includes a young daughter and hard-working, absent, unattractive husband who works to keep Coach in a version of the life she has ripped from the pages of magazines. She feeds them wine and tells them stories and they talk cheer.
For her first power play, Coach casually mentions to Addy an unconventional cutie on the track team. Addy takes the bait, and spends a night drinking and making out with him before deciding she’s just not into him. Still, she reports back to coach: Mission accomplished.
Only Beth resists the tug of Colette French. Behind the scenes, she’s playing master manipulator to Addy, jealous that her friend is sharing friendship bracelets and learning back flips during alone time with the enemy. Beth tries to find the right chess move to bring down the coach. The answer surfaces when the girls bust her half naked and blissed out in the on-campus military recruiter’s lap in the faculty room. Game on.
There will be a death. This is foreshadowed in the first pages of the book. There will be secrets and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death. There will be Beth’s stalker-like knowledge of everything Addy, and Addy’s confusion over who she can trust. Beth will plump up and return to power and the cheerleaders will work toward the final game of the season, which promises to include a recruiter in the stands of the stadium.
This book is absolutely delicious with the way Addy is tugged at by two skilled and needy manipulators, both whom she is desperate to keep happy, healthy, and willing to pet her. Abbott paints Beth as oozing with sexual power. She intertwines her limbs, she breathes in faces, she takes a wet finger and runs it down a teammate’s leg to reveal her bad spray tan and she and Addy exchange comforting body messages.
Coach, meanwhile, is a lifestyle seducer, with her happy home, silk sheets, and fluffy duvet cover. Her passionate affair and her goals for the cheerleaders. She’s a force beyond Beth saying “I like you. You’re my favorite.”
What could have just been a sexy cheerleaders story cloaked in a thriller is written in this great, spare way that is both visual and also a sort of visual catapult that leaves scenes open-ended. Abbott takes a lot of the insecurity of being 16, the girl-on-girl crimes, and gives it a loveliness even in the midst of ugly situations. This is lodged somewhere between the pleasure of a “Pretty Little Liars” marathon and the guilty pleasure of a “Pretty Little Liars” marathon drizzled in chocolate and marshmallow.