BOOK CLUB – Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about Dare Me by Megan Abbott  which was released July 31st by Reagan Arthur Books. For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the publisher’s synopsis

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.

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Between the Covers
Devourer of Books
Home Cooked Books
Linus’s Blanket
Nomad Reader

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • What did you think of Coach and her relationship with the girls? Why do you think she acted the way she did?
  • What did you think about the dynamic between Beth and Addy? Did you expect the revelation at the end about their relationship?
  • Any other thoughts/questions?
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30 comments to BOOK CLUB – Dare Me by Megan Abbott

  • Am I the first? The West Coaster? Can’t believe it!
    I loved this book as I was horrified by its subject matter. I had a pretty terrible adolescence myself dealing with the Queen Bees, but what goes on in this cheer squad is scary. Scary as the mom of two girls about to enter adolescence especially.
    I found the writing to be compelling – the set up that something bad is going to happen in the first scene worked for me (and I found it interesting that the reveal happened just about halfway through). I found some of the girls’ language to be difficult to follow but that didn’t hang me up too much.
    The characterizations were very strong, Beth especially, because even as I was worried about what havoc she might wreak, she was such a sad lost little girl inside. Addy was a little more self aware, but both of these girls really needed a strong mom.
    I would probably have found my way to this book eventually, but I’m glad to have the chance to “talk” about it with you all.
    I have to get my girls to the dentist right now, so I’ll check in later, but my big question is: how does the unlimited (in subject matter and time of day) texting between the girls play in to the relationships?

    • I also had a pretty nasty adolescence because of the Queen Bees, although my school’s queens weren’t cheerleaders. Cheerleading wasn’t a big sport in my school. But oh my goodness, did Abbott nail what it was like, or what? That was what I liked best about the book. I remember what it was like to be a teenage girl, and Abbott’s writing about it was nearly perfect. So impressive.

      It’s hard for me to come up with an answer to your question since we didn’t have cell phones when we were in high school. It’s hard for me to imagine what that would have been like. I think sending text messages has just taken the place of passing notes back and forth, although text messages would be easier to hide from people who shouldn’t see them. That’s a good question. I think maybe it made the girls feel more important and closer to one another, when really that wasn’t the case at all.

    • Karen, I was really struck by the texting too. I’m of the generation in between Gen X and Millennials, and to my mind, Abbott nailed the contemporary communication habits of teenage girls. It’s something I’m enjoying seeing more of in novels, as how we all communicate has changed so much. I was fascinated by how they communicated. I, too, was somewhat shocked by their behavior, but I appreciated how Addy seemed to long for more discipline from her parents.

      • I loved this detail – I graduated high school right when texting was starting to become the big mode of communicating with friends. All the “adolescent female aggression” books just seem to miss that opportunity, so to speak. The outlets for mockery and ostracizing your peers have gotten more public with text messaging and the Internet. It’s really sad that this is the case, but I appreciated how Abbot used this to create a more compelling, rich reality in the novel.

    • I think the immediacy of their contact might have gone toward them making poor decisions and being more of followers that they might have been. When you’re texting all the time, I think it’s harder to step back and see what your priorities might be, or even to think about making other decisions. It is so much easier to get caught up in a moment.

  • Although I wouldn’t have picked this book up and read it on my own, I’m glad I read it. I am very impressed with how well Abbott captures what it’s like to be a teenager and an athlete–she nailed both. I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with how she writes about those things.

    The relationship between the coach and the girls was the only thing I didn’t like about the book because I found it highly unrealistic. Is hanging out and drinking with the coach common practice these days? When I was in school, if we had been going to our coach’s house that often (and had been drinking), there’s no way the school wouldn’t have found out about it and disciplined everyone involved. There was no mention in the book of the girls keeping it quiet, or the coach telling them to keep it quiet or anything. That was just too weird for me, and I don’t really see it happening in real life (at least not often, and not without some punishment eventually). That was hard for me to accept.

    I really didn’t like the coach at all, to be honest–I disliked her from the moment she told one of the girls she was fat and the girl ended up with an eating disorder. I was blown away by the way she treated that girl. After that, I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the coach.

    Now, as far as Beth and Addy are concerned, I knew there was something there we weren’t being told about. I got the feeling that Addy wasn’t the most reliable narrator when it came to Beth, but I did not foresee what was revealed in the end. Beth was too attached to Addy and was trying too hard to mess everything up for there not to have been some bigger reason than just wanting to be “top girl.” So I knew something was coming, but I didn’t know what.

    I’m not really interested in cheerleading, and the storyline left some things to be desired, but I would have kept reading just because Abbott writes so well about teenage girls and what it’s like to be an athlete. I was a dancer for many years, and played volleyball in high school and college, and every time she talked about them working, or what it felt like to be a part of a team, or how their sport gave them a reprieve from all of the high school bullsh*t, I was nodding my head and thinking, “Yes, yes, yes.” I did the same thing while reading about their feelings and relationships, etc. Those parts made the book for me.

    • I had a real hard time with the relationship between the coach and the girls, too. I’m a middle school teacher, so it was difficult for me to suspend belief about the relationships. I know coaches who are close to their team, but not close enough to risk losing their jobs and a possible lawsuit.
      Abbott was spot on with the texting. It’s a nightmare in school and very hard to monitor.

    • My mom is a middle school teacher, so that relationship with the coach was kind of a shock. I’ve grown up around educators, and anything that remotely approaches that kind of boundary-crossing is stamped out…immediately. I know I’m talking about a really small, small percentage of educators compared to the entire country, but I shared your feelings about how surprising and shocking this was. I get having a closer bond with some students, but engaging in illegal activity with minors is something entirely different.

  • I really enjoyed this novel, and while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Abbott’s writing in the past, this novel felt like a departure in some ways because it’s a contemporary story and it felt very modern. Abboot managed to infuse contemporary suburban cheerleading with classic elements of a noir story, and I was so impressed.

    I found the story of the coach and the girls quite believable. While it wasn’t the norm, I certainly knew teachers and coaches who hung out with other students in high school. I think what’s also key is how young coach herself is. I think she was unhappy in her marriage, unhappy being a mom to some extent, and longing for her cheerleading days. I think both she and Addy longed for each others’ lives in some ways.

    • It’s good to know that someone else has seen coaches and their charges act this way, because I have never seen this happen before. All of the schools I have ever had any dealings with would not have allowed this in any way. I find it very interesting that there are schools that would. (And I keep bringing up the schools because people always find out about these things.)

      • She hadn’t been there that long, I could buy it by thinking that nobody had found out YET, I’m sure if she’d had the opportunity for this to all go on longer someone would have.

        • I guess I should also remember that I came from a small town. If this had happened where I went to school, people would have known the next day. Hahaha! Almost every area I have lived in has been that way. But I see what you’re saying, and I can better accept that.

          • Although Coach’s behavior was reprehensible, I did sadly find it believable. She was a really sad woman to me. Just digging herself in to more and more sadness with every choice. The parts where she talked about forgetting her own child were just chilling.
            I’ve also heard of teachers (and parents) drinking and hanging out with students. I agree that she was on the road to getting caught (if the murder hadn’t happened first!)

            • While I still find it shocking based on my own experiences, I could see how with this character and the context of the novel, it works. I’ve definitely heard of it happening more with parents, though – looking to be the “cool mom” or “cool dad.”

            • I agree with you Karen. Thankfully behavior like hers isn’t the norm, but ever so often there is that one story that makes the news that is completely shocking and it is something like this and people ask where were the parents or how people didn’t know what was going on with the team or the school. I also think what she did was in line with who she was portrayed to be. She was just as disturbed as the girls she was coaching, and it didn’t seem as if emotionally she had grown much beyond them.Sarge seemed to have recognized that she needed a connection with them, but he wasn’t in the right state to see how wrong that was either.

  • I was torn about this book: I hated basically all of the characters SO MUCH, but I was so compelled by the story and interested in what Abbott was doing. I wouldn’t say that I really liked it, but that it kept me reading was a testament to Abbott’s skill. I think what I really hated were all the relationships, particularly the way the coach interacted with her girls, it just bothered me way too much.

    • I felt the same way about the story. I already mentioned why I didn’t like the coach, but I also didn’t like the girls because they reminded me way too much of girls I had to deal with in high school (which was not a great experience for me). I just really liked how well Abbott nailed the way they acted and treated others, and she really nailed the feelings that come from being part of something like a sport. If it hadn’t been for her talent in portraying those things, I wouldn’t necessarily have liked the book at all. I could take or leave the storyline.

      • I also realize that it sounds like I contradicted myself there. I should have said that I agreed with you about Abbott’s skill, not the story itself. There was enough suspense in the story to keep me reading, but I really had a hard time accepting some of the details.

    • I didn’t particularly like any of these characters either, but I was absolutely fascinated by them. So many of their actions were reprehensible, and the only person to possibly root for was Addy, whose narration provided glimmers of hope that she wanted another path. Sadly, I think these characters are indicative of the reality of which Abbott writes, and her co-opting the classic noir genre and applying it to vapid, mean high school girls was smart. The story beguiled me.

    • I’m with you – I couldn’t stop reading this book but it was like a combo of watching a car wreck happen, dragging up nasty memories and worrying about the world my daughters are entering! A true testament to her writing skill that I kept at it.

      • I couldn’t have said it better myself, Karen.

      • My mom and I go through this a lot when I give her book recommendations. Even though I’m an adult, she will “always be a mom” and there are just some triggers that to this day she can’t handle (she refuses to read The Lovely Bones). If I had a daughter, I know this book would have given me shivers about the social politics they’ll encounter in their adolescent and teen years. Eeesh!

  • The thing that I wrote in my margins a couple times was, WHERE ARE THE PARENTS? Bess and Addy both refer to their parents as not caring, or saying that they won’t notice. How do you get to the place where you don’t notice or care that your daughter is leaving the house at 3 a.m.???? But I believe it happens – weirdly, I think it’s the other side of the coin of the helicopter parent – the “oh well” or “bury your head in the sand” parent??

    • Sometimes the best parents in the world don’t notice their kids sneaking out, either. It happens. But Addy’s and Beth’s parents just sounded like they didn’t care or had completely given up. It’s hard for me to imagine getting to a place where I don’t care about my kids, but there was also no mention of the parents’ back stories, really, so who knows? It’s still disheartening.

  • So many of you have already said what I felt — I disliked the characters, found some of the plot unbelievable, and generally could not sink my teeth into a lot of the novel. However, Abbott kept me reading. Is that a testament to her writing? I suppose so; I felt the exact same way about her previous novel, The End of Everything. Very unlikable characters, over-the-top plot, unrealistic action. But, as with this novel, I still finished reading it. In fact, I found it hard to put down.

    I had read a lot of great reviews of the novel, so I probably would have read it regardless of whether or not I read it for a book club. However, having read it, I can’t say I agree with those glowing reviews. As with the other Abbott novel I read (and as someone said above), I sort of read it with fascination but disgust — car wreck-style.

    I am also a middle school teacher, and I found the relationship between the Coach and the cheerleaders entirely unbelievable. Although there are obviously many girls whose parents don’t participate in their lives, an entire team of them seems disconnected from reality. Yes, teenagers live their own lives outside the house. Does that include partying at their Coach’s house every night? No. The lack of parental supervision is exaggerated for the purpose of the novel — to explore the “real” lives of teenagers. That being said, there are undoubtedly coaches (teachers, parents, older friends) who would act exactly like Coach. I would simply say that they are few and far between, and inevitably they get caught.

    I think it was fairly obvious that Addy and Beth’s relationship extended beyond the terms of a “normal” friendship. I suppose because it seems especially pertinent in our current culture, even before the truth was revealed, there were hints at that truth. As with many other things in the novel, it isn’t entirely far-fetched that their relationship was as Abbott describes it — these things happen. However, the fact that it also fits with the male fantasy about girls in locker rooms, etc., bothers me a bit and makes the whole thing seem a bit cliche.

    Although I will agree that Abbott is a talented writer, I haven’t read a novel of hers yet that I would say I truly enjoyed. So I’m not sure what that says…

    • I wasn’t surprised at what was behind Addy’s and Beth’s friendship, either, because it’s well-known that teenagers experiment and these things happen (even if the people involved aren’t into same-sex relationships). I hadn’t, however, thought of it in terms of the girls-in-locker rooms fantasy, and I’m surprised I hadn’t, actually. That’s a very good point.

  • I have to reiterate Joanna’s point above: Abbott’s novel kept me reading. Sometimes there are pacing issues that make me put a new book down for a few days, but I’m happy that with book club and book blog recs this year, it hasn’t happened as much! I don’t know if I would have picked this up myself. I’ve heard great things about Abbott’s other books, but I’ve never really been drawn to reading them. Maybe I picked them up and read the jacket or the back cover, but this is my first read. I may have hated the characters and found some of the plot surprising, but I didn’t have pacing issues that slowed me down or found myself disinterested in the outcome. I had a similar experience with The Taste of Salt in the fall – I just loved the act of reading these two books. It’s always nice to have that – a reading experience that reaffirms why you are a reader.

    And, okay, tangent over. I know a few of us have discussed this in the comments already, but I had some issues with the relationship the young women shared with the coach. I understood it in the context of the story. Maybe my shock and surprise is from my own personal perceptions and biases. Abbott’s a skilled writer to be able to create that kind of “emotional logic” – how it is believable that this character would have created those situations because of her own unhappiness.

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