It's an old-school B-movie setup, a girl gang seething with crushes, rivalries and vendettas, a cold, beautiful alpha running her ring of pretties with an iron hand. Transport this viper's nest of feminine evil to a 21st-century high school girls' locker room, add text messages and hoodies and extreme cheerleading stunts, and you have Megan Abbott's "Dare Me," a dark novel that will appeal to both teen readers and their mothers, the blood-thirsty and drama-hungry market catered to by TV's "Pretty Little Liars." The author says she crossed "Lord of the Flies" with "Richard III"; readers are calling the result "‘Fight Club' for girls."
Abbott's 16-year-old narrator, Addy Hanlon, has long played second fiddle to her best friend, cheer captain Beth Cassidy. Beth's rule over Addy and the rest of the squad is overthrown when their good-ole-girl coach moves away and is replaced by the taut, ultra-intense Colette French. French surveys the situation with disgust. She takes away the girls' cell phones during practice, puts them on juice fasts and diet supplements, has them run bleacher sprints until they collapse. She mocks their old routines — streaky glitter faces, weak straddle jumps and pom-poms shaken to Kanye West — and drives them relentlessly toward the most difficult and dangerous competitive cheerleading stunts, like three-tiered standing pyramids with flying girls thrown up to the top and diving back down.
No one falls in love with Coach French faster and harder than Addy — to Beth's disbelief, then hurt, then fury. As Addy and some of the other girls become closer and closer to their new idol, partying at her house, deconstructing her marriage, smoking cigarettes in her car, Beth is driven out of the spotlight and stripped of her captaincy. Meanwhile, a very good-looking National Guard recruiter named Sergeant Will appears on the scene, with his "riven-granite profile blurred by the most delicate of mouths." Bets are placed on who will be first to lure him into a bit of disorderly conduct, and this sets in motion a series of power plays and secret schemes that spin very far out of control.
If you think all this is working up, "Glee"-like, to a final cheerleading contest, or to a sports-novel-type ending, you are very wrong. By the time the college recruiter shows up at the last game of the season, "Dare Me" has soaked the white sneakers in blood and turned into a murder mystery. Even if you are not, as I was, reading this book by flashlight in a wind-whipped, rain-lashed tent on a camping trip, you won't be sleeping either.
The potent melodrama of "Dare Me" is amped up, page after page, by the rhythm, imagery and portent of Abbott's language. Her take on the culture of young women is chilling and knowing, lingering on the edge between reality and sensationalism — the constant monitoring of the cell phones, the hounding, the stalking, the virtual trail left by every conversation and act. The ruthless judgments against each other's bodies, homes, families and personalities. No one in this book has a meaningful relationship with a parent, nobody has a boyfriend, no one feels loved. If this emptiness is an exaggeration of the teenage condition, it is one we recognize, one we see the results of in the news all the time. "Dare Me" depicts its very real consequence: utter amorality.