Megan Abbott's Dare Me is a psychological thriller poised at the edge of the insecurity which accompanies adolescence. The narrative centres upon Addy Hanlon, a sixteen year old girl and her cheerleading squad, who have just been introduced to their new coach, Coach French. It is with this introduction that everything changes and the structure which had once seemed to secure begins to dissolve.
Abbott’s second novel revisits similar territory to her first, The End of Everything, concentrating on adolescent girls as it does. In Dare Me, however, the author ramps things up, producing a subtle and nuanced tale of what can happen when life as we know it starts to take on unfamiliar characteristics.
Beth Cassidy, leader of the cheerleading squad has been used to ruling the roost and manipulating her fellow team members until Coach French arrives at their school. Almost immediately, the coach disrupts this, removing the recognised leadership structure which has been in place and substituting girls within the team for one another, causing them to strive to prove themselves worthy of their new and unfamiliar positions.
Both the team and its coach are rife with issues, with teenage drinking and bulimia proving to be the least of their problems as the narrative progresses. Whilst initially seeming standoffish, Coach French makes the mistake of letting the girls in her squad become too familiar with her life outside of the school building and the discoveries this leads to are what lead to a tense power struggle between Beth and the coach, as Beth becomes privy to secrets her coach would rather she had never discovered. Meanwhile, Addy is struggling to work out what is going on and who she should trust, balanced between her previous friendship with Beth and new understanding with Coach French – the biggest question being who is responsible for murder, the aftermath of which the novel commences with.
Dare Me delves into the darker side of human nature, exploring marital difficulties and their potential side effects, as well as providing a realistic portrayal of adolescent bullying and the vulnerability of teenage girls and dangers of unspoken attraction. Abbott takes care to ensure Beth Cassidy does not simply come across as sociopathic in her wilful destruction of the lives of those around her – she displays vulnerability in her interactions with Addy, her former best friend who has been side tracked by her visits to Coach French’s house. Ultimately, it is this loss and not that of her cheerleading position which wounds her severely.
The narrative also exposes the competitive nature of teenage girls, both in the context of their cheerleading capacity and otherwise. We see the training and physical demands of the sport and manner in which this can destroy those it seeks to empower via injury or substance misuse. Ultimately, this also reinforces the underlying message that life has a competitive edge to it and the struggle for survival of the fittest. This is no more poignant than in the case of Beth, who is borne aloft to the heights, only to be cast down with force.
Despite the murky depths the narrative plumbs, it ends in a more salutary fashion, with the decision to “live by choice” not “chance”. We do, however, see recognition from Addy concerning the losses encountered in reaching this position of strength – those of Beth, from whom Addy has taken something she refuses to name; knowing if she does so she will be forced to confront it fully and appreciate its significance in a realistic manner. In this instance, it is the individual who appears to be strong who is ultimately confirmed to be the more vulnerable, hiding this beneath an apparent brittle exterior. As with a number of instances in the overall narrative arc, matters are more complex than they appear to be at first instance, leaving us with a lasting sense of the complexity of human emotion, psychology and behaviours.