SCW Author Review: Meg Abbott’s “YA” Novels

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Time on to-read: It’s been about two years since I started hearing her name mentioned. 

Reason for not reading: Totally thought I might be either too old for these books, or they’d bring back such vicious flashbacks that they might not be worth it. Also, any time I was in the mood for this sort of dark novel, I decided to go with novels starring the older sisters of these girls lately.

Reason for finally picking up: About a month ago, I needed anything that I would totally absorb me, and I was promised that Megan Abbott books would do that and then some.

Verdict: Depends on you, a bit. But damn, you can’t say its the fault of the writing.

Before I start with my thoughts on Meg Abbott’s writing, I should state that from what I can gather, she writes two kinds of books. One are pretty old fashioned hardboiled noir books with female-centered stories of feminine power and violence and appropriately stylized covers, all shadows and curves. The latter are books centered around the fairly privileged lives of middle school and high-school aged girls fighting it out undercover in locker rooms, backyards, bedrooms and hallways. I’m going to be talking about her style in the latter books- I haven’t read any of the former ones (something I plan to correct soon). But I have a feeling that these seemingly wildly divergent tales of female aggression and violence have a lot in common than people would feel entirely comfortable acknowledging.

The two Megan Abbotts I’ve read are The End of Everything and Dare Me. I’m almost annoyed that I have to tell you the plot because I know that’s part of how people decide to read books, even though its so not the point, but here goes anyway. End of Everything‘s protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl whose best friend and next-door neighbor disappears one night, apparently out of the blue. With the help of our protagonist, Lizzie, the police  quickly think they’ve found a suspect in an older man, a seemingly a quiet pillar of the community for decades, as they always seem to be. But although in many books this would be a movie-of-the-week pedophile scare story ripped from the headlines, Abbott takes it in a whole other, super brave direction that I’ll talk about farther down and turns it into something far more powerful that puts a surprising and heartbreaking amount of feminine energy in the driver’s seat. Dare Me focuses on the two queen bees of a high school cheer squad. Beth, the fearless Cool Girl Regina George of the group, and her self-proclaimed “lieutenant” and best friend since elementary school, Addy. Addy is our eyes and ears for the duration of this pivotal-time-in-life story in which their cheer squad gets a coach who is…. complicated and unconventional to say the least, Coach French. She is beautiful and collected and possibly a master manipulator of high school girl minds. Addy develops a close relationship with her, ever closer as the book goes on while Beth goes on a crusade to oust the Coach from her position and reclaim her former position of power. This sets the girls increasingly against each other for the first time in their lives. There are hints from the beginning of the gigantic pile of mess that sits inside every girl who is even  momentarily a part of this tale, and oh man, when those powerful messes combine- well suffice it to say that Captain Planet is not what appears. The fight is not what I just told you the fight is about and that’s all I’m going to say until you read it.

I am sad if anything about the plots I just said encouraged you to immediately discard it. I would encourage you to keep reading for just a little longer, because like I said before, the plots seem like something you might discard as hackneyed or juvenile, or, more insidiously, “not serious”, but they are anything but that in reality. I read a great article in The Atlantic recently about how revealing it is when people complain about Elena Ferrante’s book covers, filled as they are with pictures of women in wedding dresses, brushing their hair, holding dolls, playing with their friends in costumes as little girls, and holding babies. Because of course, even people who love the books cry, don’t discourage people to think these books are “just” “chick lit”- people will be embarrassed to read something that looks like a romance novel, something not for “smart” people, “serious” readers. Because we’ve been trained, as a culture, to think less of stories that focus on the every day struggles of women with received cultural ideas and the social, emotional and physical problems this causes in their lives (see also Jennifer Weiner and Judi Picoult on critical dismissal of “women’s fiction” and Vulture’s recent great article about why Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the best show on television and will never get the credit that a Mad Men or Breaking Bad will).

Abbott’s books are a great example of stories that would get a wider and more appreciative audience if people were willing to expand their ideas about what plots can make for compelling fiction subjects. If you’re willing to look past surface signals of identity towards the work that’s actually being done, I think you’ll find that Abbott’s books have more in common with all the introspective character studies being given five stars in the NYT than they do with surface, standard High School Story formulas. Hear me out. Here’s my case for her:

  1. The writing:
  2. The writing
  3. The writing
  4. OMG the WRITING.

I love so many things about her writing. Both of these books are written from the personal perspective of our protagonists- we spend most of our time looking out of their heads, trying to make sense of the world around them. I think that this is the most powerful way to write books about teenagers, especially for adult readers. Because the most important thing, I think, to convey about the teenage experience is the way that teenagers think. And oh man, does she have it down. Her characters are absolutely flooded with feelings every moment of their lives- strong ones that sometimes sharpen them to a knife point of adreneline and discovery, but most often leave them lost and flailing about for any purchase they can find.

Abbott chooses to convey this through a stream-of-consciousness style full of commas and clauses and sentences that change structure before they get to their bottom. I barely noticed the periods most of the time, because the next wave of !!!! was already rushing in behind them whenever they did occur, overflowing with just everything it needs to tell you right now.  The excruciating moments of embarrassed silence and stuttering starts and stops and resets that draw adolescents on full speed ahead to a screeching halt showed themselves much more powerfully because of it. Through establishing this rhythm, Abbott is able to get readers to live at the often terrifying pace and intensity of her characters once again.

Then she can hit them with the reminders of what its like to be at an age when you know enough to maneuver the world in a physically independent fashion and mostly perform the basics of human interaction- but also to not  know just enough to embarrass yourself in somebody’s eyes in a daily basis. It’s that period where everything you know feels like the most certain thing in the world, but the most certain thing can change from hour to hour depending on the new information you’re always learning and receiving. Or it can stay artificially in place long after you have the information because you don’t want to know it. Her characters feel truth far more often than they think it and for them that doesn’t make it less true. Everything is constantly shifting for them, the goalposts are moving- that is the reality of their world, both mental and physical. Everything does feel like the end of all things all the time because, honestly, it often is- so many things die at this age, over and over again, everything that these things are being replaced with often seems scarier and harder and you’re not allowed to express that because nothing is worse than seeming like you don’t know everything. Anything, anything is better than admitting your weaknesses and confusions- including hurting yourself and anyone around you.

And before you say “well, fine, but grown ups know how to deal with their emotions, so this still sounds irrelevant”…. I think that you can’t have looked around at the news lately at all the many, many people who are willing to burn down the world rather than acknowledge change or how sad they are about the way their choices in life turned out, or why the choices someone else makes about their family are so personally threatening to them. The saddest thing I saw lately was just a brief clip, inside a larger story. It was of a large, muscled man with tattoos all over him and the biggest sunglasses he could possibly have found screaming “I LOVE TRUMP!” until he was red in the face and almost crying with the effort of yelling that loud, unable to listen to perfectly reasonable questions being asked of him, and earning slightly scared looks from even other Trump supporters around him. I wish I could find it because it’s just the most heartbreaking example of someone for whom change, uncertainty and conflicting feelings were just too much, someone who is willing to risk anything for the illusion of security.

All this was powerful enough, but I think the bravest part of both books, but especially The End of Everything, was going beyond how it feels to be inside the mind of a teenager to what it feels like to be inside their bodies. It’s where so much of the mess of the mind originates, for starters, but beyond that, it’s an important subject to acknowledge and deal with in a time when we’re often too puritan or careful about perceptions to do so. Abbott does not shy away from describing, in Dare Me, her characters feeling the strength of their nearly full-grown thighs and arms and hands and ruminating on all the disturbing possibilities of what they can do with these new superpowers they seem to have inherited, simultaneously terrified and excited by them. She has characters watch them from the outside, trying to get through to the cheerleaders about the horrifying risks they are taking with their bodies, covering themselves with bruises and throwing each other about above steel and concrete and smiling while they do it- and shows how thrilling it is to have characters realize that others see them this way.

And yes, she does venture into the realm of sexuality. In Dare Me, she largely sticks with the slightly more familiar territory of nearly grown girls testing out what newly grown body parts can gain them and lose them and thinking they can handle the consequences of that, hating themselves every second and telling themselves they are goddesses the whole time. In what is a slight spoiler, I guess (so look away now if you don’t want any hints), here’s a more exciting, subterreanean effort at dealing with fluid sexuality and the penalties friends inflict on each other for not sticking to the script, for exposing perceived weaknesses instead of building points and power. Questioning things feels like a personal attack to your friends and the characters react to it as such. In The End of Everything, I thought she was even braver about dealing with awakening sexuality in very young teens. Yes, the ultimate plot is about the deeply confused, deeply disturbing ways that this struggle can manifest in daylight. Especially when, as far too often happens, no guidance is given by adults who are too deeply embarrassed to acknowledge that their child is- or any children are-making this transition at a younger age than anyone is comfortable with, or are too deeply wrapped up in their own lives to notice what’s happening (the total absence of any adults from the lives of the kids in Dare Me, even at the most adult moments, was particularly powerful- the only ones who really featured strongly were the ones who were in league with them in some way and not acting by “adult” rules- and oh man the stuff to unpack there). But even more quietly enthralling was Abbott’s descriptions of these girls just starting to understand what the feelings in their bodies mean and how they are different from the ones they felt in childhood. She goes about it until you squirm uncomfortably at the utter, helpless, scary cluelessness of her characters who are just acting on what they feel to the best of their ability, with the information they have and messages they’ve received from the (usually terrible) role models available. The End of Everything  is particularly heartbreaking because of just how young these characters are- it’s all happening before they’ve even developed that hard shell older teenagers have often already learned to present even to themselves. It’s all new at this time and someone could help them and nobody wants to be responsible for doing so- and then what happens happens. Not enough authors deal with this topic, and certainly not enough try to deal with it inside the head of these girls and boys without idealizing them with flowery words that don’t come close to truth or insisting on making it all into an inevitable trauma that they’re just going to have to deal with and we’ll talk to you on the other side- that is, whichever ones of you survive this (I haven’t read The Fever yet, but that’s next, and from what I’ve read, it seems to take that particular idea to its natural extreme). I think Abbott offered her characters the rarest and most precious kind of understanding, as merciless as it can sometimes be: just being seen. And she deserves more recognition if only for that.

Of course, I’m not saying everything was perfect. I thought that sometimes her plotting wasn’t as tight as it could have been and the surprises sometimes needed a little more to be really earned- I thought she didn’t get the absolute most out of some of the amazing underground feelings and inner crises going on because she was so focused on hiding them, both from her own characters and the readers (which had some amazing effects discussed above, but could also make the twists feel less earned than they should have been at times).  I also loved End of Everything leaps and bounds more than I did Dare Me, which felt a little less authentic and more sensational than I wanted it to, by the end, like she had been guided towards shock and awe. I knew these girls, but not in my bones the way I did with End of Everything, just because of how carefully she described everything. Dare Me was still cast an amazing spell, but all the stuff that makes this one much more likely to become a movie made it a slightly less memorable book for me. As I mentioned at the top of the review, YMMV on Dare Me, depending on how much of an Addy you are in your own life, or at least how much you really want to think about it.

I plan to read The Fever soon, and then all her noir novels and totally encourage you to do the same. Yes, these are girls. But these are girls whose stories and feelings need to be heard and respected, because until we do, all these seemingly hackneyed plots will continue to be written and played out over and over because you know what- they’re still happening, every day.

 

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