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My Megan Abbott literary crush began a few years back, when she’d paused on reimagining noir tropes of the first part of the twentieth century and instead had delved into the realm of the contemporary, with a particular focus on the darkness of teenage girls.
It was around the time of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, when we learnt not to be the ‘Cool Girl’, even as ‘cool girls’ were still abundant in so much of literature and popular culture generally. It was a resurgence of the ‘unlikeable female narrator’ – ‘unlikeable’, of course, being a label only ever applied to women (that oddly alliterative male anti-heroes like Don Draper and Walter White were so popular at the same time is telling). It was also, more personally, a time when I was consciously trying to read more crime fiction, more psychological thrillers – a genre I knew I was under-read in, yet one I knew was exceptionally skilled at plot.
Enter Megan Abbott, who does plot wonderfully but you may not even notice because the sentences are exquisite.
Swoon. Brain-swoon. That particular feeling that you get when you encounter a writer you know is already a favourite. There it was.
Her latest novel, Give Me Your Hand, is the fifth of her contemporary novels, following four historical reimagined-pulp scenarios and a non-fiction work on masculinity and crime, and like the others explores the darkness of teenage girls. The End of Everything looks at the girl left behind when her best friend disappears in allegedly-safe suburbia; Dare Me (on the verge of becoming a TV series) is an exquisite exploration of power struggles within a cheerleading squad; The Fever interrogates an apparent contagious madness among teenage girls in a small town; You Will Know Me delves into the world of competitive gymnastics and is narrated by the mother of an unknowable, mysterious prodigy of a girl.
Teenage girls – arguably the most derided segment of ‘civilised’ societies – are always taken seriously in Abbott’s work. Their fears, their anxieties – their capacity for cruelty. They are not giddy, shrieking stereotypes – not by a long shot. They are often fiercely ambitious, as in Give Me Your Hand, where both the mysterious Diane and narrator Kit are in competition for a prestigious scholarship. These “Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place”, meet later as adults, when both are post-doctoral researchers, again competing for a place on a project to investigate PMDD.
PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) is something you may not have heard of. An extreme form of PMS, which itself is under-researched and under-estimated (there’s about five times as much research done into erectile dysfunction –a figure quoted in the book but familiar to some of us already), it can bring about levels of ‘insanity’ (a legal term, rather than a medical one) which have been used as defences in court. In lesser hands, one of the main characters in this book would suffer from PMDD and it would be a learning experience for us all. In Abbott’s hands, it’s more complicated. (“The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that,” to quote the knowing Crazy Ex Girlfriend.)
PMDD is both a “hot” research topic and something the male scientists mock; when Kit first hears her mentor speak on the topic she notes that the men have “the look of small boys expecting to find teeth between every woman’s legs”. Without reducing women to their biology she is also sensitive of the impact of hormones, of pain and blood; what she refers to as “the whole rickety biological pathophysiology of our women”. Her mentor is clear that it is science who has failed these women, these women who “would kill for” relief; at the same time Kit finds it “faintly ludicrous” to be going on about the “dark and mysterious” nature of womanhood.
This is not a book about how hormones make women ‘crazy’ (nor a book that argues that the impact of such things are irrelevant). It’s about what it is to be female in the world we live in, and particularly what it means to be a smart woman in the sciences – in research, in academia, in spaces where women are both explicitly and implicitly told they don’t really belong. On top of that, Kit’s background contributes to her sense of not-belonging – unlike the others in her research lab, she attended a state school, and is used to juggling various jobs rather than benefitting from middle-class privilege.
But it’s also – and more importantly – one hell of a read. There’s a murder, and a slow reveal of an intense adolescent friendship, and secrets, and another murder, and some sex, and all of it arranged in glorious sentences that are a joy to encounter.
Like the more traditional crush, literary crushes are difficult to explain without veering into cliché. It’s a page turner, it’s clever, it’s beautiful, you should read all of her books because they’re so pretty… but unlike the traditional crush, the literary crush never minds when others join in with the appreciation. The literary crush doesn’t do competition, only camaraderie: you’re here? You’re a fan? Awesome. Let’s talk. And do you know, by any chance, when the next book is out?