“Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy’s best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they’re seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls — until the young new coach arrives.
Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach’s golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as “top girl” — both with the team and with Addy herself.
Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death — and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain.
The raw passions of girlhood are brought to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of friendship, ambition, and power. Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott, writing with what Tom Perrotta has hailed as “total authority and an almost desperate intensity,” provides a harrowing glimpse into the dark heart of the all-American girl.”
Usually, when I plan on writing a review, I like to try and get as much of it, if not all of it, out of the way once I’ve set the book down. Sometimes I like to keep notes, throughout my read, so as to help me vocalise some of my thoughts. Other times, I leave it all to memory. Either way, I find it a lot easier to formulate some kind of a response the second I’ve actually finished the book, and very rarely do I have to allow myself a little time to just sit on it and stew over everything I’ve just read. This is, indeed, one of those rare times. I tried, I really did. I sat down, opened up my trusty word doc, and thought I’d fire out a few paragraphs on all the pros and cons of this book, but nothing came. Nothing but incessant rambling that, while being a consistent theme in all of my blogs, made absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s a tough book to rate, for sure, but an even more difficult one to review. I just… can’t quite grasp how it made me feel. I certainly didn’t hate it, but i’m not sure I loved it either.
I’ll start off with a few trigger & content warnings, just to get those out into the open for anybody who has any plans on checking this book out:
- fat shaming
- suicide mention
- self harm/self harm mention
- eating disorders/body dysmorphia
- drug use/mention
- sexual activity between an adult and a minor/sexualisation of teenagers
- rape/sexual assault mention
- casual use of ‘D’ slur
I’ll start by saying that, generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books where I dislike all of the characters. I mentioned something similar in my most recent review, when reading You by Caroline Kepnes, only the difference there was that it didn’t particularly phase me I think the reason that I found it a little easier to be in the mind of someone as heinous as Joe Goldberg, yet struggled with someone like Addy Hanlon, was that there were never any reservations to be had on whether or not Joe was a ‘good guy’. He wasn’t, plain and simple. You’re inside the head of every average, entitled, white boy, only with a sprinkle of pretension and an extra dash of creepy. Even throughout the book when I found myself as equally frustrated as he was towards the likes of Peach, Benji, and even Beck, I never once found myself in agreement with Joe, his mind frame, or his behaviour. In Dare Me, however, I could never quite pinpoint what it was that Abbott wanted me to feel. Each and every single character in this book was deplorable from the off. And don’t get me wrong, I know that’s the point. I know that this is a story of obsession, a story of bitchy, catty co-dependence. But, the thing is, the vast majority of these characters are teenage girls, after all, aren’t they? So am I supposed to pity them, to hope for their redemption, for some sort of character growth? Or am I to see them exactly as they are: as entitled bullies who care only for themselves?
It’s hard, because as much as I was looking forward to this book, and as much as I wanted to come away from it feeling this overwhelming sense of delight, and to gush and gush and gush until there were no words left, I found myself a little disappointed by the end of it. Underwhelmed, even. And even now, I’m still somewhat struggling to really put my finger on why it didn’t all sit right with me, but I can’t.
As you can see above from the synopsis (thank you, Goodreads!), this is the story of a High School cheer squad, told from the perspective of our main character Addy, heavily featuring characters such as her best friend Beth Cassidy, their coach Collette French, the other girls on the squad, as well as an array of other supporting characters ranging from French’s husband and daughter, the soldiers recruiting at their school, all with varying degrees of relevance. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a lot of manipulation, bullying, and an incredible amount of cattiness featured within these pages. I think, in a sense, this is a story that we’ve heard a thousand times before, isn’t it? A high-school cheerleading squad teeming with bitchy, unkind girls, all withering away from the stresses of school life, the pressures of life at home, and everything in between. This is a story of obsession and jealousy, each character full to the brim with unhealthy, abusive traits that are echoed within each person and their treatment of one another. In a lot of ways, despite the regularity with which we’re fed such stories (both in literature and on screen), I can see the appeal, and why dynamics like these have such a magnetic pull as far as the audience is concerned. And genuinely, Abbott’s story is captivating. I can’t say I was particularly fond of her style – though, I will admit, I was reading it on my kindle app, rather than a physical copy, which I know can often leave certain aspects somewhat askew – but I will say that this particular story was an easy read. The content itself wasn’t endearing or cheerful, not in the slightest; it was dark, grim, and unsettling to say the very least. But, even so, I couldn’t put it down, and whenever I did, I still found myself wanting to pick it back up again and see just what was going to happen next. I wanted to figure out who was doing what, and why. I wanted to unravel each and every mystery, and I felt a sense of pride every time that I did. But still, there was just something about it that never really clicked for me.
I’ve heard a lot of praise, both from friends and strangers alike, regarding Megan Abbott’s writing, and I think a massive part of the problem for me here is that I don’t quite get it. Now, that’s not to say that she’s a bad writer by any means, but I don’t think i’m quite seeing what everybody else is. I briefly mentioned above that I struggled a lot with some of the writing style, and that I can’t 100% put the blame on her for that, not justifiably, at least. I did read this on my kindle app on my phone, on a tiny screen, with no physical copy in sight, and I know that sometimes (though it’s certainly not meant to!) the app can often mess with the format of a book, or leave it looking a little topsy-turvy, so I will just state honestly that I don’t know if my issues with the formatting and the style of writing were genuine or not, or just a mishap within my app. That being said, there were a lot of aspects of her writing that I genuinely didn’t like. I found sometimes that the pacing was a little bit off, and that there were scene jumps, or a change of speed/direction in conversation, with little to no explanation as to why. At times, I felt as though Abbott was trying to be a little more flowery with her writing than was entirely necessary. Now, i’ll give credit where it’s due, she clearly done her research as far as cheerleading goes. I don’t know whether she gained her knowledge through a personal experience, or a desire to do right by these characters and their skills, but it’s obvious that she wanted to be precise within the detailing, throwing around technical terms and slang that, had it not been for her trusty glossary, would have sorely gone amiss to me. That being said, there were times, both within their cheer routines as well as other scenarios, where I felt like Abbott was trying too hard to be artsy within her writing, thus leading her to over explain a situation, and by the end of some scenes I couldn’t tell whose limbs were where, whether Addy was standing, sitting, or laying, or even how certain characters got to be where they were in the first place.
“I want to hold tight to her hand and say soft things.”
I specifically chose to read this book this month to go towards my attempts for F/F February, having heard all about the LGBT+ themes within this story, and having heard from multiple different people that there was a WLW ship involved, too. I will admit to having been a little bit disappointed with the representation, but I’ll also say that it’s not entirely justified. I love a romance, and I love to love the characters that i’m losing myself in, so naturally I was a little underwhelmed to discover that there wasn’t a single healthy relationship within this book. I found myself sorely disappointed that this LGBT+ read wasn’t teeming with romance, with LGBT+ themes at the forefront; not because I think that sexuality is what defines a person, or that it should be the sole basis for a story (quite the contrary, in fact!), but merely because I didn’t completely know what I was letting myself in for.
With all of that in mind, I do want to talk a little bit about the diversity within this book. I’d be a fool to say it wasn’t there, it absolutely was. While it’s stated throughout the book that these girls are, for the most part, all skinny white girls, it’s fairly evident from the off that Addy isn’t straight. In my opinion, our core character is most definitely not interested in boys – despite her half-hearted attempts at appearing to be. There’s multiple references, however subtle, to her attraction to girls, the above quote being a prime example. It’s not explicit, not does she outwardly state that she wants to kiss girls, to date them, or that she has any visceral sort of attraction to them, but there’s certainly a whole lot of subtext. We’re treated to various different lines such as the following:
- “A Love-Me-Knot”
Emily Grins. That’s the easy one. I know who made you that.”
I don’t say anything. Coach looks at me.
“Guys don’t make these.”
“They sure don’t,” Emily says, and you can almost see her tongue flicking.
- How is it other girls’ panties are always so much more interesting than your own, I think.
- “Addy doesn’t like to be on top,” Beth says, poker-faced.
It’s all there, pages and pages of references towards Addy’s sexuality, everyone in on the joke, knowing that there’s an underlying truth yet to be outwardly stated. It’s almost as though Addy’s attraction to girls has become a weapon for her fellow teammates to use against her, little jabs here and there, nobody ever loudly coming forward to actually twist the knife all the way in. It’s never explicit, she never labels herself or speaks one-on-one to anybody about her feelings, and yet it’s a very prominent part of the story. Indeed, it’s one of the factors that so often had me questioning my feelings towards Addy, often feeling a little sorry for her, recognising her naivety. In so many ways she comes across as so oblivious to the treatment of others around her; time and time again she falls for Coach Collette French’s manipulation, always bending over backwards to do her bidding, to please her, to make her happy, and endlessly she allows herself to be walked all over by Beth, her supposed best friend. She blushes and shies away each time there is an implication of something more between her and another girl, we even see her kissing a boy she goes to school with merely because Coach French implied he was attractive; all that she seems to do is to impress the girls around her, fawning over the likes of Collette and Beth. It’s only really until the last few pages of the book, truly the last chapter, that we’re finally given our answers, treated to the truth of Addy’s past, the depths of her relationships, almost as though her sexuality is one of the many other shameful secrets hidden within this tale.
“My question is this: The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators?”
There were so many moments within this book where I wanted to save Addy from this awful group of people, to allow herself to be herself freely, to love who she wants to love, to be surrounded by decent people in a healthy, safe environment. She clearly idolises her Coach, hero-worships her in a way that is so clearly misguided. She is naïve, she is soft, she is lead astray by the mind games of those around her. And yet, she continues to prove the reader wrong by being crass and unkind, by picking on her fellow teammates, calling them out, shaming them. The quote above references their own insecurities, their self hatred, and yet also calls forward that they hate everyone else much more. There are moments throughout the book where Addy thinks of her friends, her peers, her teammates, people who she sees every single day of the week, and yet never has a kind word to say about them. One particular section that caught my eye was the following:
“Oh, Riri, maybe one day you’ll find a boy who loves you for more than your double-jointed jaw. And Emily, six weeks running on splenda and cabbage broth, as caved-in as your belly looks you’ll never get that round face of yours any thinner at all unless you take a hammer and chisel.”
Here, and countless other times, she is seen to think of her friends in the most ghastly, cruel ways; often times in ways that not even Beth, the resident mean girl, can match (which, to me, is really saying something). She mocks them internally, sees them as weak and useless, as ugly, and even belittles them for their eating disorders, for illnesses, and casts them aside when they are no longer of use to her. Addy may be presented as the protagonist of this book, but I don’t rightfully believe there is one, which is certainly where many of my issues come to a head. Does Abbott want me to like Addy, or am I supposed to see that she’s just as jaded, just as wicked, as the likes of Beth and so many of the others within this book? I’m just not sure.
Overall, there’s a lot of drama within Abbott’s story, some of it that I found to be beyond unsettling. I understand, to a degree, that with stories like this that you need to horrify the reader; after all, these are heinous people committing heinous acts. All the same, I sometimes felt as though she was building up a tally of horror after horror just for the sake of it. We have characters falsely accusing other characters of rape, with full intent to destroy lives, we have minors (ranging from 14 – 16) having sex with adults, and never a single person of authority, nor a guardian, ever present to call out such behaviour. These are children, at the end of the day, and I think I found the most unbelievable aspect to be that there wasn’t a single good, authoritative figure to be seen. We are supposed to distrust Coach French – or, I always believed so, personally – and that I can understand, but to have a whole team of teenage girls, and not a single parent present, not a teacher in sight to reprimand or guide them, it felt a little… strange.
To put an end to this (rather messy, slightly nonsensical) review, I will say this much: I don’t regret reading Dare Me. I didn’t hate it, not by a long shot, and I think that i’ve come to conclude that this, quite simply, just wasn’t a story for me. This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read, nor are these the types of characters that I would personally find myself enraptured with. I am not somebody who generally enjoys a villain, or a character who is, to be blunt, morally fucked. Those are not usually the types of characters that draw me in, and I think that’s okay! Everybody is different. I would still recommend this to a lot of people, depending on your reading preferences, and i’m still glad that I gave it a shot. There were a lot of aspects that I enjoyed, and I still found Abbott’s writing very compelling, easy to push through, and it still left me satisfied enough that I kept wanting to read more, so I certainly wouldn’t consider my time wasted.
I read this book between 9th Feb – 11th Feb for F/F February, and so below I’ll just be quickly featuring the bingo board, just as a means to mark it off on my list!
- a book from your 2018 TBR. ✔