Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

“Blood will have blood…”

😀 😀 😀 😀

Back in the last days of high school, Kit Owens became friendly with new girl, Diane Fleming. Beautiful, intelligent Diane encouraged Kit to rise above the modest ambitions she had for herself, and instead set her sights on gaining a scholarship to study biology at university. But Diane also told Kit a secret – something so shocking it ended their friendship and has haunted Kit ever since. Now Kit is working as a postdoc for Dr Severin, a scientist both girls had admired and been inspired by. All Dr Severin’s team are hoping for a coveted spot on a new study she’s beginning, into PMDD – Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an extreme form of PMT. But suddenly Dr Severin announces she’s taking on a new team member. Kit is appalled to discover that her old friend Diane is now to be her colleague and rival. Old secrets turn into new nightmares…

I always love the way Megan Abbott writes about the hormone-driven intensity of teenage girls and their friendships, but I’m also glad she’s beginning to take her girls into womanhood too in her last couple of books. This follows the almost ubiquitous pattern of current thriller writing of having sections set in past and present (with the past written in past tense and the present in present tense, which is at least slightly more appropriate than some uses of the annoying present tense). It also has a touch of “that day” syndrome (where the narrator keeps referring ominously to something that happened in the past), though in this case the reader is told what happened that day reasonably early on – before I got to full tooth-gnashing, Kindle-hurling mode, although it was close. Kit, of course, is an unreliable narrator. Surprisingly, despite all these stylistic clichés, I enjoyed the book, which is a tribute to Abbott’s writing.

There’s very little I can say about the plot without spoilers. I found the setting of a biology lab intriguing – it feels very well researched and believable, as Abbott shows the teamwork that is essential but also the rivalries for the limited number of grant-funded positions that offer the best opportunities for break-through research and professional triumph. PMDD is a syndrome I hadn’t heard of before, and is mostly peripheral to the plot. But Abbott employs it as a kind of vehicle for using female biology as a theme, with much – too much – concentration on blood. There’s a kind of feeling of throwback to the days of women being perceived as witchy and dangerous because of their dark sexuality. Personally I felt Abbott over-egged that aspect a bit – her adult women seemed to be as intense as her adolescents and, while she clearly wasn’t intending this, it felt to me almost as if she were suggesting that her professional women were all driven to the point of obsession, with an odd unstated link to their femaleness as the root cause. It didn’t ring wholly true to me, though it made for a nicely warped and scary story.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Did I find the plot credible? Well, no, not in the end. But the things that went over the line for me only happened very near the end, so didn’t spoil my enjoyment while reading. As usual, there were one or two twists too many, but that’s another of these laws of contemporary crime writing, sadly. The employment of all these current trends – the present tense, the unreliable first person narrator, the incredible twists, the past/present storyline – prevented me from loving this quite as much as some of her earlier books. But the quality of the writing, the excellent pacing, and the interesting plot and setting meant that as usual Abbott kept me reading well into the wee sma’ hours, so despite my criticisms I recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read!

PS I know I’m a tedious pedant but… the past and present sections are headed Then and Now. Fine – simple, clear and means the reader is never left confused. Plus, Now gives some excuse for present tense. Imagine my pedantic surprise then to discover that the final section of the book is headed Ten Years Later. Ten years later than now? You mean, in the future? Are we seeing it through a crystal ball in Divination class? Or do you mean Now is ten years ago – in which case it really can’t be Now, can it? Words matter. Don’t they?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador.

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You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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The Fever by Megan Abbott

Hormone-soaked tale of teenage obsession…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.

the feverIt all starts when Lise has a dramatic and terrifying seizure during class and ends up unconscious and possibly comatose in hospital. As if this wasn’t frightening enough, over the next few days other girls are exhibiting similar symptoms, and soon an atmosphere of panic is running through the town. No-one knows what has caused this outbreak. Could it be the vaccination the girls recently had? Or is it something to do with the poisoned lake at the edge of the town? No-one knows – but Deenie sees that whatever it is seems to be affecting all the girls closest to her, and she’s not the only one who begins to wonder if somehow she’s at the centre of it all…

Megan Abbott’s new thriller takes us again into the world of the older adolescent girl that she used to such great effect in her last novel, Dare Me. Although the plot is entirely different, there are many similarities in terms of her portrayal of this hormone-soaked, angsty world of the teenager, where friendships, jealousies and rivalries mix and overlap with an emotional intensity unique to that age-group.

Deenie and her friends have reached the age where boys and sex are the subjects of their daily obsession. But the girls are also still just young enough to be passionate about their relationships with each other – jealous of each other and jostling for position to keep their place as part of the in-crowd. In Deenie’s crowd, Gabby is the queen, the one everyone wants to be friends with, and until recently Deenie was sure that she was Gabby’s closest confidante. But now witchy Skye seems to have taken her place, and Gabby and Skye seem to have secrets they don’t share with the others. And Lise, always something of an ugly duckling, has suddenly blossomed into a beautiful swan, and her sudden and reciprocated popularity with the boys has brought new layers of tensions and jealousies into the crowd. These tangled relationships and emotions form the backdrop to the story.

Megan Abbott (© Philippe Matsas/Opale)
Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

The book is written in the third-person past tense, mainly from Deenie’s perspective. But we also get to see through the eyes of her father Tom, a teacher at the school, and her older brother Eli, himself still a student there. I found both Deenie and Tom very convincing, but Eli a little less so. I thought Abbott showed well the dichotomy of the older brother who is at the age of viewing all girls through the prism of his raging hormones while feeling outraged when other boys look in the same way at his sister. But I felt that she made Eli seem a bit too involved with his sister and her friends at the expense of his own male friendships, and this didn’t ring true to the age-group for me. I also felt that the girls in this story were not quite as three-dimensional as Abbott has achieved in earlier books – the boy/sex obsession seemed to be not just central but total – the girls seemed to have no other interests in their lives. It works in terms of the plotting but made the girls less real to me than, say, Beth from Dare Me or Lizzie from The End of Everything. I also thought that Abbott’s originality of language felt a bit more stylised in this one – occasionally I found myself wishing for a noun to be left unadorned by an innovative adjective.

The problem with writing two really great books one after the other is that expectations are so high for the next. For me, The Fever is not quite as good as the earlier books, but that still leaves it head and shoulders above most of what’s out there. Without ever crossing the line into the supernatural, Abbott introduces an element of witchiness into the novel that, combined with the growing hysteria and finger-pointing, is reminiscent of The Crucible. As more and more girls are affected, Abbott achieves true tension and a growing atmosphere of dread. So, despite some small weaknesses, I would still highly recommend this to existing Abbott fans or newcomers alike.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

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Dare Me by Megan Abbott

dare meDark and fascinating…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another stunning journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood from the author of the wonderful The End of Everything.

When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years. The story is told in the first-person by Addy and we see her loyalties to her oldest friend Beth being tested by Addy’s new friendship with the young Coach. Manipulated by both Beth and Coach, Addy struggles to keep faith with both as their mutual antipathy and jealousy starts a chain of events that will take them all to some very dark places.

Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott

Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story. Not knowing much about cheerleading (being a Brit), I found watching some of the stunts on youtube gave me a real sense of the risks, commitment and reliance on the team that Abbott weaves through the book. She describes wonderfully what the girls are prepared to put themselves through for a coveted place on the team – the physical pain and endurance, the extreme dieting to stay light enough to ‘fly’. And the body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood.

“A pyramid is a body, it needs blood and beats and heat. ONE, TWO, THREE. What keeps it up, what keeps it alive is the bounding of your bodies, the rhythm you build together. With each count you are becoming one, you are creating life. FOUR, FIVE, SIX.”

And I feel Mindy beneath me, the sinew of her, we are moving as one person, we are bringing Beth up and she is part of us too, and her blood shooting through me, her heart pounding with mine. The same heart.”

As in The End of Everything, Abbott seems able to get to the very heart of what it is to be adolescent, with all the turmoil and confusion of dealing with a new phase of life. In this book the girls are a little older, about 17, and so have a better understanding of adult relationships, but are still young enough for their female friendships to be the most important aspects of their lives; and Abbott shows them as having a mix of toughness and vulnerability that rang very true to me. As Addy sees how Coach inspires the team, she at first feels a little hero-worship, but as she is willingly dragged deeper into Coach’s life, the balance between them subtly alters so that sometimes Addy seems like the stronger of the two. Beth, the admired and feared leader, the manipulator, is at the dark heart of the story and is one of those characters who will stay in the memory long after the book is finished.

An enthralling read, dark and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

the end of everythingUncomfortable but engrossing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written in the first person, we see the story unfold through the eyes of 13-year-old Lizzie. Evie and Lizzie have been friends for ever in that close, intimate way that only happens in childhood where every secret and emotion is shared. Now, however, Evie has disappeared and Lizzie is trying to make sense of her feelings of loss, her suspicions that Evie may have been hiding something and her relationships with Evie’s family who have been her second family for so long.

Voices pitchy, giddy, raving, we are all chanting that deathly chant that twists, knifelike, in the ear of the appointed victim. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock… And it’s Evie, she’s it, lost at choosies, and now it will be her doom. But she’s a good hider, the best I’ve ever seen, and I predict wild surprises…

This book is an examination of that difficult time when childhood and adolescence meet. Lizzie is experiencing her first feelings of sexual desire and is trying to understand and deal with this. Being 13 is a long time ago for me now, but Lizzie took me back to that turmoil of emotions, that clash of innocence and knowingness, that combined sense of anticipation and apprehension of a new phase of life, and it seemed to me that the author had caught this incredibly accurately. Through Lizzie, she talks about the physical changes, the private fantasies, the struggle to understand the motivations of adults and to be accepted by them in a new way, the secrets and stresses within families.

Lizzie is telling her story retrospectively with the vocabulary of an adult but expressing the thoughts and feelings of a child. I know some people found this jarring, but I love Abbott’s use of language. It always strikes me as innovative and original, and in this book took me right inside Lizzie’s head as she tries to deal with these frightening events that are suddenly thrusting her into an adult world.

What did it mean, sitting in that motel parking lot, waiting to see? What did it mean to know she’d been there, maybe just minutes before, she’d been there, so close you could maybe still feel her, hear the squeak of her tennis shoes on the doormat, smell her baby-soft hair. They’d been there, been there behind one of those clotty red doors, and done such things…and now gone. And now gone.

Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott

The book is tautly written and relatively short at around 250 pages. I found it an uncomfortable but engrossing read, covering aspects of pubescent sexuality that we sometimes like to pretend don’t exist. Suspenseful to the end and with a pervading atmosphere of dread, I shared with Lizzie a need not just to know what had happened to Evie, but to understand. This is not a book I will soon forget – I highly recommend it to anyone who was once a 13-year-old girl, though I was glad to see that it has been well received by male reviewers too.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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