Books

In the Blood

Megan Abbott’s new teenage-friendship novel is really a horror story about female rage.

Lit in red, a young woman stands looking angry with her arms crossed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Bad, bad things happen to teenage girls in Megan Abbott’s novels. They suffer the kinds of devastating traumas that leave you wondering how any of us made it through childhood intact. In 2012’s Dare Me, which centers on the world of high school cheerleading (the New York Times sincerely labeled it the Great American Cheerleader Novel), best friends and resident mean girls Addy and Beth run their squad together but find their relationship breaking down when a new coach enters the scene and her lover turns up dead. By the end of the book, Beth’s skull is shattered and Addy has become an accessory to murder. In 2014’s The Fever (which Sarah Jessica Parker has optioned as a series for MTV), a bizarre outbreak of seizurelike fits sweeps through a high school, affecting only girls; nobody can determine whether it’s biological, psychological, or a vicious prank.

But teenage girls aren’t merely victims in Abbott’s work, like in some sort of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit plot turned After School Special. They’re also the perpetrators—of ugliness, bullying, jealousy, abuse, self-harm, slander. They let each other plummet to the ground from cheerleading pyramids; they encourage one another to “gag themselves pea-shoot thin”; they spread photos of each other having sex. And all this happens among girls who describe themselves as friends. Best friends, even.

The cultishness of teen-girl friendship is an obsession of Abbott’s fiction. Locked away behind bedroom doors, secure in locker rooms, or cruising in their cars, these girls turn what might seem like “safe spaces” into snake pits where they jab each other’s soft spots and feel around for weakness. The less confident fall under the sway of more powerful forces. The group enforces loyalty at all costs. “Each of us is a singular organ,” Addy explains in Dare Me, “feeding the other organs, creating something larger.” Abbott homes in on the ways the girls, insulated from any moral barometer save their own, goad each other into making life-altering decisions.

Abbott’s fiery new novel, Give Me Your Hand, focuses on a brief but tightknit friendship between two brilliant high school seniors, Kit and Diane. The daughter of a single mother, Kit works at the Golden Fry to bring in extra money and “comes home slicked in oil and feeling mean.” Her ambition, until Diane shows up, is to attend community college. Diane, whom the other girls call “Church Barbie” for her blond good looks and prim, formal attire, lives in her grandfather’s manse way out of town; she’s so bright and diligent that “teachers used her tests for the answer keys.” With her father recently dead of a heart attack, Diane enrolls in Kit’s public high school, where the two become lab partners, best friends, and dual motivators, slaving over their chemistry work in an effort to win “the Severin,” a full-ride scholarship to study STEM at the state university. “It gave everything we were doing a center, a unifying force,” Kit explains. “It wasn’t about the grades, but what the grades could get you.”

The story is told in rotation, with flashes forward to Kit and Diane’s adult selves; they both end up with coveted positions in the same lab, working for the high-powered researcher (and trustee of the scholarship) Dr. Lena Severin. Dr. Severin has just received a career-altering grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of PMS that makes women “drive into light poles, shake their babies, throw kitchen knives at their husbands.” She wants to demythologize PMDD’s sources to figure out whether these spurts of female rage are really based in human biology. Kit is not exactly thrilled to have Diane as a colleague; they haven’t spoken since senior year, when Diane told Kit a mysterious, weighty secret—one that sent Kit fumbling away from her in fear and anger. After an accident in the lab, the two women are warily forced back into one another’s confidence.

The backdrop of Severin’s research provides fertile ground, if you will, for Abbott to linger on the defining question of her fiction: What can provoke a young girl into violent rage? Severin’s quest is to discover whether our blood itself, its monthly curdling and release, could really drive women out of their senses. It’s a dangerous question, which Abbott hints at in her summary of some of Kit’s research: “Many in the field continue to express concern that raising the profile of PMDD will further stigmatize women as emotionally and physically unstable, providing additional mechanisms by which men can claim women are not equipped for positions of power.” But the concept also speaks to what Kit sarcastically calls women’s “witchy power.” From their preteen years onward, women’s bodies can mysteriously lurch out of their control. “What woman can’t imagine,” Dr. Severin wonders, “that, one month, the usual cramps and moodiness might suddenly spiral up into something larger?”

Give Me Your Hand could have been a standard-issue peek into the secret lives of American teenagers—the usual chaos and drama and hormones, just with higher stakes and body counts. But it’s much more than that. By springing forward into Kit and Diane’s adult lives and fleshing out the messy psychological ramifications of decade-plus-old traumas, she digs into the gravitas of adolescent emotional wounds. After all, these aren’t YA novels; they’re for grown women who may not have harbored murderous secrets but whose teenage years were still a very formative, vivid phase that significantly shaped their future selves.

Abbott’s earlier novels are mostly structured as typical whodunits. But in Give Me Your Hand, we know both the crime and the perpetrator early on. There’s nothing to solve. Instead, it’s a slower-paced Match Point–esque anxiety fest, a caustic nightmare about our youthful bad decisions. Even if you have committed no crimes and harbor no weighty secrets, this book will leave you nauseous with the memories of your own manic, pulsing teenage nature, the emotions you barely kept in check and the ones that overflowed.

The evening before Diane’s first day at Severin’s lab, Kit sits up late, digging through boxes of high school memorabilia. There’s nothing tangible for her to obsess over. The only piece of Diane she has is “the neural snag she left in my head, the mad drone of her toneless seventeen-year-old voice that long-ago night.” She remembers Diane’s pose when she revealed her secret, the color of the bedspread on which she perched. “Because the bad things you do become a part of you, literally. This is no metaphor. They become a part of you on a cellular level, in the blood.”

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. Little, Brown and Company.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.