TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Megan Abbott has made a name for herself as a suspense writer who likes to make a study of closed communities and watch them implode. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Abbott's latest novel "Give Me Your Hand" is one of her best. Here's Maureen's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Perhaps no other suspense novelist around today loves to write her characters into tight spots more than Megan Abbott does. The elite clique of high school cheerleaders, gymnasts and obsessive moms in earlier novels, like "Dare Me" and "You Will Know Me," spend most of their lives sealed into gyms, locker rooms and family vans. And the settings aren't the only things that are cramped in Abbott's suspense tales. The internal perspectives of her characters also narrow as her stories reach their climactic moments. Abbott's latest spectacular thriller is called "Give Me Your Hand." And it's not recommended for the claustrophobic.
A rivalrous female relationship once again lies at the dark heart of Abbott's novel. Kit Owens and Diane Fleming meet in high school. Both are smarter and more driven to succeed than their peers. But Diane has the advantage of being wealthy while Kit, the daughter of a single mother, works afternoon shifts at the Golden Fry. The two become best friends, spending evenings studying chemistry in Kit's cramped bedroom. Be careful with that one, ominously warns Kit's savvy mother. When pressed to explain, she says listen, kid. There are some people who are trouble. They can't help it.
But, of course, 17-year-old Kit doesn't listen to her mother. Instead, she listens to Diane who whispers a monstrous secret into her ear. The friendship abruptly ends. But the bond that secret forges can't be broken. Ten years later when Diane reappears in Kit's life, Kit accuses her former friend of setting her up. By telling me that secret, Kit says, you trapped me. Kit by then is toiling as a postdoc researcher in the high-pressure lab of Dr. Severin, a chilly figure who favors placenta-red lipstick and python-skin, spiked-heel boots. Dr. Severin is something of a one-dimensional evil queen from "Snow White"-type figure. But it's fun to watch the fear she generates in her underlings.
Even more intimidating than her dominatrix fashion style is Dr. Severin's research. She's spearheading the study of something called PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which, unlike its milder cousin PMS, can turn sufferers into hormone-addled killers. The brand-new big money grant Dr. Severin has just been awarded allots only two slots for researchers. And Kit, as the only woman in the lab, thinks she has a good chance of being selected. That's when Diane reappears. She's been working as a crack researcher at Harvard, and she's just accepted Dr. Severin's offer to join her team.
As the competition to squeeze into those two slots becomes even more frenzied, one of the male postdocs quips, there will be blood. Turns out, that's no joke. "Give Me Your Hand" is a baroque thriller, where dead mice and other things suddenly drop out of ceilings, and characters go missing in the maze-like passageways of Dr. Severin's lab. Abbott vividly captures the blinkered focus and sky-high stress levels of the postdocs. And as always, she's sharply attuned to the obsessions of her female characters. Here, for instance, is Kit idealizing Dr. Severin.
(Reading) All my life, I've only seen as much as a keyhole allows - side glances, small corners of something larger, more massive vision. But Dr. Severin, whose brain is immense - and it seems to me very beautiful - no, sublime beyond my reckoning - is able to see things I long to see - overarching networks, grand symphonies of the body, the brain, the genes and the blood. And working with Dr. Severin, I know I'll see it all, and I'll be part of the grander scene, the illumination of darkness.
Over the past few years, Abbott has created an impressive gallery of strong female characters, like Kit and Diane, whose ambition and friendship are laudable but whose manipulative behavior affirms some of the worst stereotypes about female relationships. It's complicated. And Abbott, to her credit, is intrigued by those messy psychological complications. "Give Me Your Hand" is a nuanced and atmospheric story about the lure of big dreams, especially for women. It's also a story about the unpredictable power of dreams to suddenly turn into dead ends.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Give Me Your Hand," by the suspense writer Megan Abbott. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by country songwriter Lori McKenna. This is FRESH AIR.
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