Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2012)

Dare Me is an in-depth and deeply disturbing look into the complex social hierarchies of teenage girls, their cutthroat politics and ruthlessness often making them simultaneously best friends and worst enemies. At the center of their universe is their queen bee: the most ruthless and reckless of them all, a girl whom the others are both terrified of and desperate to befriend. As if caught up in her spell, the girls grant the queen bee a terrifying amount of control over their lives: taking her abuse and accepting her challenges, all for a chance to be pulled into her inner circle. “Queen of the hive. Don’t mess with the queen.”

The story told in Dare Me focuses on a high-school cheerleading squad, a group of gorgeous young girls drunk with their power: a mix of popularity, sex appeal, and exclusivity. At their helm is their hard-as-nails Captain, Beth Cassidy, whose wildness sets the tone for the entire squad. At Beth’s side for years is Addy, the story’s narrator and Beth’s “Lieutenant,” always up to harass the other girls or stay out late drinking and taunting lustful boys. Hardly anyone dares cross Beth and Addy — certainly not other girls, not even adults — and they both revel in their freedom to be as wicked as they please.

Enter Colette French, the school’s new cheerleading coach and former Queen Bee of her own teenage life. She is young, beautiful, and tough: the girl’s on her squad are immediately enamored with her and her glamorous seeming life. In hardly no time, Coach French has maneuvered herself into the power position, dethroning Beth of her team captaincy, her head-girl status, and her best friend, Addy.

The girls are all frantic with longing for their adult lives to begin, spending their time trying on behaviors the associate with growing up: drinking stolen bottles of vodka, popping their mother’s pills, and tempting men with their new-found sexiness.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girls needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin….We are all waiting, wanting things we don’t understand. Thing we can’t even name. The yearning so deep like pinions over our hearts.”

Colette offers to the girls on the squad a place to try on their grown-up selves; hosting them for parties at her home where she doles our cigarettes, diet pills, and wine…sharing some of her secrets with the grasping girls. In return, Colette gets adulation and, more importantly, a chance to reconnect with her youthful self: before marriage and motherhood tamed her.

Soon, however, the adult world she has brought the girls into — especially Addy — grows all too real. Addy, longing to be claimed as Coach’s favorite, jumps into a wild, after-hours life that Colette begins to lead, discarding many of her own pursuits to play wing-man (and alibi) to her Coach.

Dethroned and wild with rage at her growing impotence, Beth channels all of her conniving into finding out Coach French’s secrets so that she can cost the woman her job at least, ideally her entire life. When she learns that Addy is a willing accomplice to Coach French’s double-life, Beth realizes she has the power to not only bring down Coach, but also to punish Addy for her disloyalty.

The author repeatedly refers to the girls in terms of their “witchiness,” and describing them as having power over one another and over others, especially men and boys, a power that often wield without understanding the consequences. Selfish and self-absorbed with themselves — keeping their tiny bodies tiny and their boyfriends interested — the girls on the cheerleading squad fail to see any of the potential pitfalls that might ensnare them. Their coach is also blinded: her desire to recapture her youth and the power she feels having the girls in her thrall blind her to the risks she is taking with their lives.

The author creates a creepy, realistic world in which young and beautiful girls play fast and loose with their bodies and with their very lives. A truly wonderful and haunting novel.

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