If I treat literature as a landscape to explore, it is inevitable that I will stumble into some bogs now and again — and unfortunately, I found this to be one of them. So much so, in fact, that I did not finish the book, which one might argue would disqualify me from writing about it. But if I do not analyse the books that fail me, how will I ever come to know what it is I value in fiction?
I first heard about Dare Me online, and then found it at the library. Having seen it described as “cheerleader noir,” I think I was expecting an adult take on the Cheerleaders series that I read with such fascination in the 1980s — teenagers behaving badly towards each other, but with real consequences rather than the softened edges of those long-ago YA novels. This book has some of that, certainly, but really it is about adults behaving badly towards teenagers, who are quite realistically so confident in their own agency that they do not realise that they are being made use of.
Dare Me is narrated by 16-year-old Addy, whose already troubled relationship with her best friend and enemy Beth is strained towards a breaking point by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach, Colette French. French expects the girls to take themselves and their training seriously, and the girls eagerly accept the challenge — except for Beth, who resents authority, resents the entrance of an adult whom she cannot control, resents the end of the cheerleading squad as her own empire. Yet Beth is also the only one of the girls who sees how French is using the squad, and particularly Addy, to meet her own emotional needs. As French invites the girls to her home, gets drunk with them, and begins to treat Addy more as a companion than a student, Beth watches with anger and jealousy, warning Addy over and over that things are not as they seem. The craft of it is fascinating — Abbott does some very interesting things with Beth as the voice of truth who cannot be believed because in all other ways she is so untrustworthy — but I simply could not enjoy it. Pleasure is not the only thing I read for, but it must be in the mix somewhere, or why bother? Abbott’s structure and story were good, but I disliked her prose so much that I kept putting the book aside, and at some point past halfway I gave up altogether.
My difficulty with Abbott’s prose is in her use of imagery. She is capable of writing competent sentences, and she has a very distinct sharp-edged authorial voice, but her imagery is often confusing to the point of dysfunction. For an example, at one point Addy says that the girls share a “yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.” Well, all right, is it deep (which is under) or is it over? And pinions are feathers — if the yearning is deep, then why is it a feather (something external and protective) over their hearts? If I think of something over my heart, I think of it just beneath my skin, very close to the surface, so not deep — perhaps she misremembered the meaning of pinions and was going for something more like pinning, the yearning imprisoning the heart? Or did she mean pinions in the sense of gears, so that this yearning is what drives the girls? But again, if the pinion-gears are driving, would they be above the heart or within it? It is entirely possible Abbott knew exactly what she was doing, that there is a reading of this which is very precise to her, but in my mind what makes imagery such a valuable tool for a writer is the way that it evokes numerous associations that colour the book as the reader continues forward. A complex metaphor is fine, but if the reader is expected to put some long thought into puzzling it out, it needs to be built upon again and again so that there is reward to it, so that it is a foundation of the work rather than a grace note. In Abbott’s case, what might have been an engaging story was lost in the writing, and all her structural skills could not keep me interested enough to finish the book.