Review of Dare Me, by Megan Abbott

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Review originally written about three years ago, after reading Dare Me the third time:
Dare Me is essentially a tragedy in a school setting. School stories often feature jealousy and betrayal, which are major themes here. The tragic heroes, Beth Cassidy the cheer captain, and Colette French, the new coach of the cheer squad, are both exceptionally talented persons, who are fated to be brought into conflict.The story is narrated in the first person by Addy Hanlon, Beth’s “fides Achates” and lieutenant, who will be the agent of Beth’s betrayal. “Fides Achates” was Beth’s term. We are not told where Beth picked up the Virgilian phrase, and Beth hardly resembles Aeneas. She actually reminded me very much of Homer’s Achilles. Beth is possessed of outstanding physical ability and development, and is quick witted and resourceful, totally devoted to her BF, and implacable in her pursuit of revenge. Beth is perhaps more aware of having certain Samurai qualities. One of her mottoes is “I will die only for you above all” which she found with a photo of a WWII Japanese aviator and once kept in her school locker. I keep imagining the soul of Yukio Mishima transmigrated into an American high-school girl.

The BFF relationship between Beth and Addy goes back to the second grade. Now they are juniors at Sutton Grove High School. The new coach is ambitious to see her squad excel and she devotes herself to the girls’ physical training and discipline. She decided immediately that there was no need for a cheer captain and demotes Beth to being an ordinary cheer leader. Beth responds by slacking off at practice with lame excuses and Coach suspends her and takes away her starring roles as Top Girl and Flyer. Beth reminded me of Achilles retiring to his tent after Agamemnon took away his prize.

Coach is a superb trainer and teacher of technique, But though we are told in passing that she previously coached a squad at another school, Coach makes some errors that imply inexperience or poor judgment. She allows her feelings to influence her and replaces Beth with two girls who are not physically up to their assignments and cause injuries. I admired Coach for treating the girls like adults and inviting them to her house for drinks, but I expect her carelessness would have got her fired if Nemesis (with an assist from Beth) had not already had something worse in store.

Coach’s hamartia is her affair with “Sarge,” the school National Guard recruiter, a widower over thirty. Coach seems to have no other adult friends. She is unhappily married to a workaholic whom she seems to have chosen for his paycheck. There are hints of a deprived upbringing and a bad relationship with her father. Her house is expensively but tastelessly furnished out of catalogues. She has a toddler daughter named Caitlin (the sort of name that also sounds as if it too came out of a catalogue) but Coach seems to find being a mother boring. But there is much we don’t know about. She appears to have trained as dancer, but where? She must have gone to college, but we know nothing about that.

Though Coach alienates Beth, Addy is drawn to her and they start spending time together, working on Addy’s back tucks and minding Caitlin. Coach also adopts Addy as her confidante and shares her affair with Sarge. This is the first adult relationship that Addy is a party to, and she finds a whole new world has opened up to her.

Addy’s new relationship, at its beginning, seems a wholesome development for Addy, although Beth resents her new rival. There is something odd in a sixteen-year-old’s only close friendship being one formed in the second grade. For many high-school athletes, their relationship with one of their coaches (addressed and referred to as “Coach” as here) is their first significant one with an adult who is not a parent. What will be wrong here is Coach’s dependance on Addy to have her back when things go pear shaped, and lying about what really happened as well.

Beth has always been the dominant partner with Addy, who has been content to be Beth’s subordinate up till now. But as we get further into the story we notice that the needy partner is Beth, not Addy. It is Beth who has to send constant text messages in the middle of the night and waits outside Addy’s house while Addy is with Coach. In relationships the partner who is least committed is the controller of the relationship, and here that is Addy. Even before Coach arrived on the scene, Addy was getting restless under Beth’s tutelage, and the previous summer, much to Beth’s chagrin, Addy developed a new friendship at cheer camp with a girl from another school, Casey Jaye. Addy is very vague, doubtless deliberately, in telling us what happened, but Addy’s relationship with Casey Jaye led to a nasty fight with Beth and nearly ended their friendship. Beth’s hamartia is her obsessive possessiveness towards Addy.

Beth’s efforts to undermine Coach’s authority and ruin her career further alienate Addy, who thinks Beth is spinning out of control. This is a typical pattern in troubled relationships. The needy partner, Beth, tries constantly to get closer to Addy, but her efforts only serve to push the restive Addy away.

The symbol for Beth of their friendship is a hamsa bracelet that Beth gave Addy on a very emotional occasion. It serves as a thread through the story rather like the handkerchief in Othello. Coach admired it and Addy gives it to her, apparently oblivious to its significance for Beth.

Some reviewers have said they disliked the characters. I love them. I think about Beth and Addy and Coach as people I knew. That is a sign of Megan Abbott’s brilliance as a tragic story teller. A very passionate tale unfolds in that most unlikely of places, an American public high school. Like a Greek tragedy, the cast is very limited. There are only four principal characters, Addy, Beth, Coach, and Sarge, with three other cheerleaders, RiRi, Tacy, and Emily in supporting roles. The style, that of Addy’s personal voice, appears on the surface to be American teenage colloquial, but in fact it is as literary and as expressive as Greek tragic dialect. I read this book through three times and each time i found something new and moving and admirable.

Remarks added after a fourth reading, January 2016.

After the third time through Dare Me I was sure it was the best tragic school story that I had ever read, even better than Simon Raven’s Fielding Gray, & that means the Sutton Grove High School cheer squad beats even the Charterhouse cricket XI. Letting three years elapse offers a fresh take, and I expected the flaws in the story to be showing, the seams looser & the control wires now visible – the tricks Megan Abbott used to make us think Beth, Addy, Coach, & the Eagles cheer squad were all real & we’d cared about them. For about two chapters I detected some artifice but then as happens every time reencountering a real tragedy, it feels like there’s a mist thickening and the air is growing chill & you’re moving into the sacred grove & can almost hear the wings of the Furies beating, or maybe it’s just the chanting – shah shah shah shah booty – as the cheer girls mount the 2-2-1 pyramid & the familiar chill runs once more down your spine.

If competitive cheer is new to you as it was to me the first time, do a YouTube search using “cheerleading stunts 2-2-1” & watch the Tulane cheerleaders do it as well as some of the other videos. Then really to be amazed, watch some of the Extreme Cheer videos. Those girls fly! Watching them, I almost wonder if Beth could have succeeded after all.

As a hero Beth Cassidy always reminded me of Achilles. But now I see Dare Me is a new version of Homer’s story in which Beth’s BF Addy, the Patroclus figure, not only survives, she takes over as the captain of the Myrmidons, that is, the cheer squad. Strangely, the two classic tragic heroes who affect me most like Beth does are Oedipus & Hamlet. Not that Beth & they have a lot in common, except that all three are revengers (we tend to forget that Oedipus was trying to avenge Laius – & he succeeds!) Watching both Oedipus Rex & Hamlet – as well as reading Dare Me – I keep getting an impulse to stand up and scream “Don’t do it?” @ the hero; even knowing how it ends I keep hoping that this time the hero will prevail: this time the messenger from Corinth fails to arrive, this time the treacherous instrument unbated & envenomed misses, this time when Beth is elevated up for the squad’s most spectacular stunt . . .

Previously, I’d seen Beth through Addy’s eyes as the protagonist with Coach as her rival & the tragedy arising from who will rule the cheer squad. This time I focused on Addy as the principal character & as the real prize over whom Beth & Coach were struggling. When Beth said, “it was always you” to Addy, she meant that it was always Addy that Beth cared about most. But also it was really Addy who was in control of their relationship, who was the real captain, not Beth. And it meant too that Beth realized it was really Addy who betrayed her. Yet what appeared to be betrayal was simply a matter of maturity as well, of Addy’s growing into the woman she was to become. As I’d noticed earlier, there’s something wrong if a 16 y/o’s most significant relationship is still one formed in the second grade. If we had more details – Addy keeps most of them hidden – about Addy’s friendship @ cheer camp last summer with Casey Jaye, we’d probably know better how Addy outgrew her relationship with Beth as she matured. If you have ever been the one who got left behind in a relationship – where a lover or friend or spouse or even a child believes she’s now changed & outgrown you & what you two once had together is now blown to the winds, you’ll know exactly how Beth felt the moment she found the discarded hamsa bracelet, the moment she knew.

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