The femme fatale figure has traditionally functioned as a vessel for misogynistic fantasies. That woman has always been a shadow of a real character, a girl almost whole in her portrayal and yet lacking that certain something that will make her tangible. Megan Abbott’s novels challenge this portrayal, as she establishes brutal, unfeeling female killers who still contain depth and crave the understanding of their readers. Abbott “hungers for more complexity.”
The first time I picked up a Megan Abbott novel, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard all the hype about Dare Me, I had seen “there’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls” plastered across Tumblr and I knew I was sure to be enthralled by Abbott’s visceral prose. As a longtime lover of thrillers, especially those with women at their center, I was eagerly anticipating the reading experience. However, what I didn’t expect was a deep dive into the teenage female psyche and a wealth of knowledge about the various ways in which young girls express themselves, either consciously or unconsciously.
Similar to the likes of Gillian Flynn and Jessica Knoll, Abbott’s novels are centered on intrigue, death and the dark heart of the scorned, traumatized and vulnerable woman. She has delved into the most ruthless arenas, such as high school cheerleading and competitive gymnastics, and revealed the truth behind the glamour. In an age where teenage girls are easily dismissed for the popular things they enjoy or are associated with, Abbott does not criticize the female interests portrayed in her novels. Rather, she recognizes their truth and importance. She eliminates the appeal of the glitter and glee assumed to be inherent in all young women, the “glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks,” and instead reveals how those concepts can instead function as “war paint…feather and claws…blood sacrifice,” subverting the reader’s associations with those concepts and making them the crux which contains all the darkness within these women.
She strips each character down to their truest, rawest selves, revealing how cutthroat they can become when done wrong. Abbott does not shy away from the contradictions inherent in girlhood; in fact, she embraces the way young women are capable of being “both fearless and fragile.”
While some have criticized this approach, believing her to be romanticizing negative qualities and creating a false narrative surrounding young girls in unlikely, dangerous and even illegal situations, Abbott focuses not so much on these girls’ actual deeds, but rather on the emotions which led them to make such decisions. Emotions which everyone can relate to, whether one believes so or not. She zeroes in on “the purple marrow of female rage” and has no qualms about making the reader uncomfortable with femininity in its purest form. Whether it’s stab wounds or menstruation, there’s bloodshed involved.
You’d be hard pressed to find a woman who has who has not felt jaded, misunderstood or petrified during her high school years. When an author chooses to focus their efforts in character development by elaborating on universal emotions, their readers become better able to relate to the story itself, no matter how far-fetched the plot may seem. Character driven novels are Abbott’s specialty, but don’t let that fool you into thinking these girls don’t have obstacles to overcome.
Abbott has a way of establishing the tense, heady atmosphere of her novels so well that one cannot help but be drawn into the lives of these fictional ladies and feel all their drama. Abbott “makes visible a darkness that’s already there,” and draws it towards the forefront. At each twist and turn, you understand more deeply just how high the stakes can feel as a young woman. Whether it’s something as simple as swimming in the lake, a gymnastics tournament or a scholarship application, Abbott takes these life-defining moments and forces the reader to see their value. When you’re young, everything feels important, everything is melodramatic. Her characters view themselves as “the most dangerous thing[s] in [their] own li[ves]…the only dangerous thing.” Instead of brushing aside such emotions, Abbott focuses on them. And her novels are all the more stronger for it.
“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin.” –Megan Abbott, Dare Me
Photo via Little, Brown and Company