I swear I wrote a book note about The End of Everything, the other Megan Abbott novel I've read. The story of Evie? and Lizzie? And how they are best friends, but Evie keeps some pretty big secrets that end up in abduction? And how it's full of menace but you can't really point to any violence or sexuality? No. I didn't. (I searched!) But I loved it, and finally last week got around to reading another of Abbott's novels, Dare Me.
It's a novel that's sort of a paean to girls' capacity for meanness. I found myself thinking about that capacity when I was at USU with Haley for her university orientation. What made me consider it was that there was also a whole bunch of junior high students on the campus, for EFY (a week-long youth program sponsered by the LDS church). We got mixed into a crowd of them (mostly girls) at the book store and as I watched them I realized that junior-high-aged girls can be put into two different broad categories: mean or awkward. Most girls manage to transition out of awkwardness, but I'm not sure meanness ever really goes away.
That morning, after a quick introduction, Haley and I split up; all the students were in one room and the parents in another. When we met back up for lunch, Haley was sitting with some seemingly-nice kids, and they were talking about their lives in that introductory way that people have. Later she told me that she started talking to them because the other group of kids to her right were a bunch of mean girls. It's funny how people continue to give off a certain vibe; almost everyone there didn't know each other, but types still gather together. After a lifetime of my shyness being taken as bitchiness, I understand that there are often misreadings of those vibes (we actually talked about Pride and Prejudice during this conversation!). But that mean-girl quality seems to call out, type to type. Do people change? I know there is the possibility of it, especially with awkwardness. But deep down, I think mean girls usually become mean women, in some form or another, and I confess: I was happy that Haley chose the swans. (She's never been drawn to popularity much, nor seemed to be bothered by not being a Queen Bee; she had her group of friends and it was enough to make her happy.)
Dare Me puts the reader right into the middle of mean girlhood. The heart of it, really: a cheerleading squad. Addy has always been a sort of lieutenant to her best friend Beth's cheer captain. You know: keeping girls straight with meanness, only she was just taking orders. But when their cheer squad gets a new coach—a very young coach, who wants to teach them how to be better athletes while at the same time not being willing to play into all of the meanness that goes along with popularity—their friendship starts to disintigrate a little. Which isn't a good thing because, as my friend Mike told me when he recommended this book, girls are mean. Colette, the new coach, seems to have forgotten just how much power a queen bee holds, and when she declares that the squad doesn't need a cheer captain, Beth begins plotting her very exacting revenge, which at first doesn't even look like it came from her.
That part of the story is good, of course. It's the puzzle you have to figure out: how did the death happen? In that sense, this is a mystery novel (but without all of the stuff that I don't like about mysteries, the abnormally wise (or bumbling or funny or quirky or whatever) detective, the quick, fortunate leaps of logic that lead to a solution). But it would only be that, just a suspenseful novel, if there wasn't the layer of physical activity. I confess: I never, as a high-school student, held cheerleaders in high regard. Type repels opposite type; I could see through their meanness, and their school spirit made me roll my eyes. (It didn't weaken my contempt to know that I could tumble better than they could anyway.) But this book explores the sheer physicality of being a cheerleader, the strength and the courage it takes to make pyramids out of human bodies. It nails the way you have to think when you're trying to make your body do something bodies don't, usually, do. The mantras, the coach's voice in your head, the slight disconnect you create to make your mind make your body fly.
And that, dear friends, is how Megan Abbott made Amy Sorensen love (devour, in fact, in fewer than two days) a book about things I do not, generally, even like. Which of course is what books are about, anyway, the way that in the act of reading, foreignness makes connections to what is known by the reader. A real book takes you past the edge of your own world view and pushes you inside someone else's; you bring yourself and then you find out what you didn't know about that self. Dare Me both reinforced and negated my opinions about cheerleading while simultaneously reminding me of how it felt to fly. It made me feel—quite physically—nervous in the old, shy way I used to have; attune, at least for a few days, to the vibes of both the previously mean and the previously awkward; and very, very grateful that I grew up and never have to be a high school student ever again.