Dare Me is “Heathers” if Heather #1 hadn’t succumbed to a Drano cocktail.  Megan Abbot’s Queen Bee, Beth, is one of the most intense and scariest characters I’ve read in a while, right up there with Amy Dunne from Gone Girl.  It’s terrifying that she’s only in high school.

From the publisher’s summary:

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. ”

I turned the pages of Dare Me with a delicious sense of dread. You know there will be no happy, neatly tied up ending here.  But still, you must turn the page, must know how Beth, Addy, and Coach French betray themselves and each other.  The word I kept using to describe this book as I read it was “intense” and I still think that is an accurate description. But so is “taut.”  This sense of impending doom, of nearly unbearable pressure, of walking a tightrope permeated the plot.

Megan Abbot gives us deeply flawed characters. Addy, always second in command, but who has tasted freedom from Beth’s clutches before, now sees a chance to exist outside of Beth, to be special on her own.  Beth, the queen bee, evil in her manipulation of those around her, but also capable of drawing sympathy  from the reader as we learn more of her story.  And Coach French.  Smothered by her seemingly perfect life, her recklessness in her relationships crosses all kinds of boundaries. She treats her squad more as friends than students, and draws these young women into starkly adult situations.

Dare Me made me glad I’m no longer in high school.  I don’t recall this level of viciousness, this type of intensity. Perhaps we weren’t as bored or as troubled. The cheerleading aspect is merely a means to an end- this could have been a particular theater clique or other group in the school, but the athleticism, the pressure to conform make cheerleading a compelling plot point here. Most all of us know these girls, or were them, or wanted to be them at some point.  Similarly, reading this as an adult, I found myself questioning so many of Coach French’s decisions. We hear so much now of blurred lines between adults and adolescents, and the ones that make the news never seem to have a happy ending.

I recommend Dare Me.  As I’ve said, it’s intense and taut and disturbing, but also a compelling story and one I found I was unable to easily put down.