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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.
"A fascinating, almost voyeuristic, glimpse into the power struggle that goes on between teenaged girls. Not just any teenaged girls-cheerleaders-with their own unique hierarchy and fierce code of loyalty, which they'll protect at any cost. There's a dark and twisted love story here, told with a rich sensual undertone that lingers long after you close the last page, still breathing in your ear: Dare me."
What led you to write about high school cheerleading?
In my last book, The End of Everything, one of the characters, Dusty, is a star field hockey player and there's a few scenes where we see her playing, with everything she's got. Doing a little research, I became very interested in how the sport can be a powerful outlet for many girls—a place they can express the feeling they're not necessarily supposed to have: ambition, competitiveness, aggression. It made me want to tell a story about those feelings in young girls—feelings we're so much more comfortable seeing expressed in boys. Then, I came upon some footage of high school cheerleading and I was transfixed, utterly hooked. These girls, with their smiles and sunny appearances, are literally tossing each other in the air, diving from heights, pushing their bodies beyond gravity. And loving it. That's when I knew I had to write the book.
It also interests me how much, for adult women, the question of whether or not you were a cheerleader (or wanted to be) is this huge divider. It seems to say something about ourselves, though maybe we're not sure what. It has this heavy cultural weight attached to it.
Dare Me has been called "Fight Club for girls," but the traditional image of cheerleaders is more glitter and pom-poms. What is modern cheerleading really like?
In my high school days, cheer was just that—hip-shaking, pom-pom waving. But today it's intensely competitive and the most dangerous high school sport. These girls are true athletes and take alarming risks with their stunts— leaping off of pyramids stacked 15 feet high. All the crazy-braze attributes we might more commonly think of high school footballers, or even boxers, or soldiers. And yet these girls still "look" the part of the All-American Girl—ponytails swinging, all the glitter and bows. But when they get out there on the gym floor, they are true warriors. Fiercely competitive, with other squads and with each other. It's both empowering (they get to focus on their own achievements, they get to be leaders) and terrifying (they seem to thrive on the risk and become addicted to it).
In other words, cheerleading seems to take all the struggles and beauty and pain of female adolescence and magnifies it by 1,000. I watch these girls and I am in awe, and frightened for them at the same time.
This is your second novel about adolescent girls. What is it that draws you to these characters at this moment in their lives?
I think many of us are still pretty uncomfortable with looking at some of the darker feelings of girls at that age—desire, aggression, jealousy. They just don't suit our ideas of girlhood. But whenever I look at YA, from my era and today, I see all the darkness of girl-adolescence there. From Flowers in the Attic to Hunger Games. That tremendous schism between how we want to think about girls and how girls really are (or how we were as girls, which maybe we want to forget) is such rich terrain.
Also, adolescence is the age at which we truly "make" ourselves or let ourselves be made by others. Our friendships, rivalries, crushes, humiliations—they all form us, and with an intensity you never get at any other age. The "bigness" of life for young girls (or boys) is irresistible to me.
And better to write about it than to live it—I think it's the hardest age of all and I'd never do it over again.
Coach French's actions are often questionable, but the girls idolize her anyway. Did you have a similar role model growing up?
Mentors can be so powerful. When I was very young, maybe fourth grade, there was a young teacher's aide all we girls adored. I remember going with another friend to the drugstore and buying a tiny gold ring to give her for her birthday. And how kind she was to act as those it were a precious gem from Tiffany's. It's like having a crush, because you just want to be like them so desperately, you crave their attention, it all matters so much. And then there's that momene you realize, as you always do, that you don't mean half as much to them. They have whole lives independent of you that have to matter more to them. What a disillusioning moment. And an important one. I guess we have to let these role models go to become ourselves.
And cheerleading coaches are a particular fascinating example. They're often just ten years older than their squad members, so the relationship becomes even more complex. They are almost peers, almost competitors. The risk of betrayal on both sides is palpable. Even inevitable. You have to overthrow the king to become a king yourself.