Jeez. This was a weird one.
It’s astounding that Megan Abbott can write a book about a murder mystery, and the mystery isn’t even the most exciting part of the book. And it is a murder mystery, but it’s a murder mystery that lives inside the story of young, impressionable girls enamored by their new leader, and the consequences of blind loyalty.
Our narrator, Addy Hanlon, has always been cheer captain Beth’s chief lieutenant and best friend. But when the young and beautiful cheer coach, Colette French, arrives, she picks Addy as her favorite and Addy finds her loyalty swayed. Her alliance with her coach thrusts her into a bigger, more grown up mystery than she could ever be prepared for.
This is not in any way your typical high school cheerleading story. Non-cheer students are only mentioned in the vaguest of passings, and the cheer squad has far less interest in boys than they do in mastering their tuck jumps and tumbling routines. They live and breathe cheer, and are isolated from the rest of the school by their devotion. Their closeness only makes the drama and problems of the squad increasingly magnified.
I liked Abbot’s decision to avoid including non-cheer characters, as well as the conspicuous absence of parents. Addy and Beth’s parents are afterthoughts in their lives, barely-there authority figures who pretend not to notice the missing alcohol and the late nights out. Coach French is their only role model, and their awe of her is palpable.
Abbot is an undoubtedly skilled writer, and pulls out some of the best metaphors and imagery I’ve ever seen in fiction, let alone in a murder mystery. The book is written in a hazy, dreamy kind of way, with stark sentence structure and dark images everywhere. Her pacing is great — fast enough to keep me flipping pages, slow enough that the high school fall football season is stretched into almost three-hundred and fifty pages.
There are moments of ‘telling-not-showing’ alerts…when Addy ‘feels like something monumental is occurring’, rather than actually feeling the monumental moment herself. While obviously a very grown-up high schooler, she can come off a little too perceptive and unrealistically world-weary and passive in the most stressful of situations.
Speaking of Addy’s passivity, her relationship with Beth was frustrating. Addy won’t take shit from anyone on the squad except for Beth, but with Beth, she’ll put up with endless threats, verbal abuse, blackmail and vulgarity. I’ve know a few Beths in my life, (haven’t we all?) and I just wanted to shake Addy into actively dealing with Beth rather than just shrugging her off or ignoring her texts.
The cover of the book (not a good choice, in my opinion) and the back cover blub make it sound like it’s going to be a fun, guilty-pleasure read about sex and cheerleaders. And while it is, in many ways, about both of those things, it’s not what I would call a fun book in the least. It’s upsetting, eye-rollingly frustrating at times, but it’s not a book I would recommend brining to the beach, and it’s definitely not something I would recommend to a high schooler. High school girls have enough going on in their heads without adding the words of these extremely body-conscious, enthusiastically bulimic girls.
Also, this is apparently being made into a movie with Natalie Portman in talks to play the Coach. Not sure if this will come to fruition, or well it would play out on the big screen. But they have Abbot herself penning the screenplay, which is always a good sign.