I wrote this review while playing Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” There are reasons why that’s appropriate, but that might delve into spoilerific territory, so I digress.
Forewarning: this will be a long review, possibly one breaking the character limit. That might be surprising considering I’m giving this (close to) 5-stars. In the aftermath of reading this, I will definitely be reading more of Megan Abbott’s work. No question.
Short version of this review: I freaking loved this book. Problematic as all heck – I realize – but that was a ride I would want to ride again, over and over. Willingly.
The long version of this review gets a bit more complicated because I’ll acknowledge this book has significant caveats and (notably) won’t strike everyone the same way. It is entirely a love it or hate it read, and it’s problematic to say the least (understatement). I understand why, and I’d understand anyone’s hesitation to pick it up. I should also mention that while this features a teen protagonist, this is very much an adult book. (I definitely think there are teens who would appreciate this read for what it offers. Considering the content, though, it’s a hard bargain. Discretion advised.)
I’d honestly say this is one to give a try at the very least because…dude. Let’s have a conversation.
“Dare Me” was yet another library recommended read that I randomly picked up in the context of recs made in the scheme of “Gone Girl.” As you guys know, I take comparison reads very lightly. More often than not, they’re not always accurate and can set up unrealistic expectations. In the aftermath of reading this, I somewhat see why the rec came about. For one, it’s a very dark read – the tension in “Dare Me” is so thick wading through it, you find yourself lost in its pull of the trainwreck variety. I could not stop reading this book once I started. Even putting it down, I wanted to pick it back up again because I had no idea where the heck it was going. It has more than its fair share of twists and turns.
Another similarity: the characters are supremely unlikable. I didn’t like a single character in this book, not even the protagonist Addy (who arguably has some sympathetic qualities, she’s quite the anti-hero). So you might wonder why I give close to five stars for a book that’s essentially about a bunch of pretentious, self-absorbed teenage cheerleaders abusing Adderall and doing everything they can to maintain slim figures and championing unhealthy eating habits and eating disorder behavior?
Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for well-developed, unlikable characters playing head games with each other and exploiting/competing in positions of power, which is pretty much what happens in this book. Almost to the point it could be Shakespearean. Think Othello being manipulated by Iago when it comes to O’s relationship with Desdemona. Except this isn’t a romance or really something that’s heavily suggestive in that scheme. Not in the least (though you could fill a bucket with the sexual tension in this book). Relationships are manipulated and manipulative. Every single character here has their own aims and desires and they’ll do whatever they feel necessary to get what they want. Or protect whom they need to in some cases.
I’m still shocked that this book pulled me in as much as it did. I had no idea what I was signing up for when I picked up this book and I ended up completely blindsided for the experience.
The story on its surface seems like a stereotypical one: you have a cheerleading team that’s led by a very strong social butterfly (Beth) for a team captain and her best friend (Addy). Addy is the narrator for this book, and by every measure of description – Addy and Beth’s relationship is inseparable. Beth’s the queen, Addy’s her partner in crime. Their relationship is a formidable one and not necessarily challenged by their peers. At least until a new coach comes into town.
The new coach is a young, seemingly powerful woman that gradually wins over the team’s affections with her no-nonsense approach to the drills and performances of the team. But it’s also her lax demeanor that draws the girls in and allows them to bond with her. Abbott’s descriptions for the performances by the team unfolds like watching a dance – I loved the descriptions here, even if sometimes they seem a bit superfluous.
My enjoyment’s probably heightened there because:
1. The descriptions seem so vivid that they’re artistically drawn in the prose.
2. I’m a graduate in exercise science so the attention given to their bodies and movements really captivated me. I haven’t seen that in a lot of texts like this and Abbott portrays it very well.
3. The portrayal syncs truthfully with the character voice, for better and worse. Addy’s character matches her voice for depictions of events and performances in her witness – she’s a spoiled teenage girl with a dark streak and surrounded by other characters who are just as flawed as she is. This is especially well noted in the audio reading of this book. Addy’s reflections are indulging for senses and symbolic parallels, yet flawed at the same time. So it worked for me.
The coach seems to win everyone over, except Beth. Beth hates the coach with a furious passion, one Addy can’t quite put her finger on for certain measures. At first Addy thinks it’s because Beth has lost her former power as the team’s captain, but it becomes more as Beth’s hatred becomes personal, borderline obsessive over the Coach’s life and secrets that are kept between the girls.
Then the unthinkable happens to someone in their circles, and it throws the coach and the girls into a tailspin. Addy finds herself front and center in the midst of a game of secrets, lies, and manipulations. She’s a puppet trying to find out who’s pulling her strings and why. I LOVED that aspect of it. The story unfolds like a whodunit mystery but at the same time a dark series of power struggles and sensual tension that builds with a swelling crest up until the “a-ha” moment comes about. I didn’t know what route it would go until the last possible point, and it made sense as far as the lying and manipulations were concerned on behalf of multiple parties.
Addy’s relationship with the coach is palpable, and the Coach, while she seems admirable on the surface, ends up not being much more mature than the students she teaches as her flaws come to the forefront, and she has her own motivations to lie. I saw that as intentional and not a flaw of the text itself. Whether the Coach’s motivations are to protect herself or others remains to be seen, and Addy’s left to the task of uncovering that on her own. Of course, Addy’s pretty much a pawn in some measures, because she’s played multiple times between people. It’s also revealed that Addy knows Beth is far more twisted for intentions than one would think, to a point that Beth has this hate/love game that she makes Abby play – one piece at a time.
While this read might seem cliche on the surface, it’s really many layers of a drama built on top of an established stereotype, to be honest. It doesn’t mince the fact that these characters are flawed, nor does it push the cast as worthy of emulation – rather stuck in their own delusions. Addy, Beth, and the rest of the crew are all flawed, and standing high on a precipice of denial, indulgence and power, with an event that rattles and threatens to break their foundation. (And I like the parallel that’s drawn to the cheerleading routines with this aspect.) It’s certainly seen (and felt) with respect to Addy’s character, as she tries to navigate the confusion and conflict she feels over events even while she’s a character with her own twisted justifications for things. She’s also more than willing to hurt whom she has to in order to seek the answers she wants.
And OMG, Beth. Can we talk about Beth? She’s probably the character that’s love to hate here. She’s tugging strings and she doesn’t care, but the text manages to give her human qualities in the scheme of things, even if you’re not sure why she does the things she does up until a certain point, especially when Addy starts revealing things from their past that suggests her own callousness that could run parallel with Beth’s manipulations. The two are really more similar than you’d think from the beginning of the work, and neither one of them are necessarily more “moral” than the other. It’s just a matter of seeing why they act and react the way they do. Even then, there are points where it leaves you guessing because you’re not exactly sure why their loyalties still lie to each other, but yet they’re still willing to hurt and manipulate their close relationship. It’s a power play, and the fact it’s done by these teenage girls who have such social standing is scary enough to think about, especially when it comes to their coach and what they know and how they choose to dance with that information. There’s some suspension of disbelief to be had, and I think Abbott works it well – but for some readers, that suspension may not be enough to drive some of the strong symbolic qualities and overarching themes this work has to offer. And that’s a shame, because when it hits the ground running, it does remarkably well. I saw it, and I loved it.
The ending of the work is hit or miss for events. I thought it was a bit quick for the resolution and even then, there’s not a fulfilling sense of vindication for the wrongs that are committed. Then again, I don’t think it was meant to be that kind of story, as this cast of fools pretty much end up with a queen and you’re watching how all of them collide and function in this bubble, along with the “why”.
In the end, “Dare Me” answers the question of how far its cast will go to be on top, or risk losing it all, even if it has deadly consequences. I thought the book was brilliant for what it chose to show, with some rough edges and suspensions to take into consideration. I would read this again, readily, for how dark, twisted, and vivid the presentation came across in Abbott’s narrative.
Overall score: 4.5/5 stars