Thursday, October 4, 2012

I know absolutely nothing about teenage girls--something that, sadly, was also true back when I was a teenage boy. Megan Abbott, on the other hand, either has a very good memory or has done prodigious research into the subject. Actually, I suspect that it's a combination of both, and the result is her excellent new novel, Dare Me.

The book is a meditation on the nature of friendship, love, competition, betrayal and young girls coming of age, set in the world of cheerleading. In it, Abbott exposes the dark underside of the cheerleaders' world and describes a culture that would have me quaking in my boots if I had a teenage daughter.

Beth Cassidy and Addy Hanlon have been best friends since childhood. Beth is the tough-as-nails, natural born leader and Addy is her able lieutenant. They are both tanned and beautiful and are the stars of their high school's cheerleader squad.

Until now, this has required little more effort than the occasional lackadaisical practice, maintaining their hairdos and shaking their assets come game time. But suddenly there's a new sheriff in town or, actually, a new coach who takes cheerleading seriously as an athletic competition. The coach, Colette French, is not that much older than the girls themselves, but she drills them like Marines and whips their bodies and their attitudes into shape. Before long, they're doing routines they never would have dreamed of before.

Most of the girls, Addy included, buy into the program enthusiastically. But Beth is not happy. Coach or no coach, she has always been the team's natural leader, and she detests even the suggestion that she might be eclipsed by the new coach. She is particularly unhappy about the fact that in her view, Addy has turned against her by aligning herself with the coach, and Beth is not a girl who will take this lying down.

The coach is a woman with troubles of her own, which soon bubble to the surface with dire consequences for the young charges she has drawn into her orbit. To say anymore would probably be to say too much. Suffice it to say that these characters are fully drawn, eminently believable, and may of them are scary as hell. But watching the story unfold is mesmerizing--you cannot turn away. Megan Abbott has delivered another very good book that will linger a long time in the reader's memory.

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