Books

08.27.13

Book Bag: Megan Abbott’s Five Dangerous Mentors

Megan Abbott’s newest novel, Dare Me, out in paperback today, imagines the world of high-school cheerleading, where teenagers follow their coaches and best friends down dark, twisted paths of loyalties. Here the crime novelist celebrates her biggest inspirations—the books that were her own dangerous mentors.

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Muriel Spark

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” For any writer tackling the theme of dangerous mentors, it begins with Spark’s novel, and so it was for me. For the six pupils under the tutelage of the seductive, witty and poisonous Miss Brodie in 1930s Edinburgh, the risks extend well beyond the classroom, culminating in disillusionment and ultimately betrayal for some and far worse for her most devoted disciple, the lamentable Mary Macgregor. But Miss Brodie’s hold on her power is hard to shake. “If the authorities wanted to get rid of her,” Spark’s narrator tells us, “she would have to be assassinated.”

Daughters of Eve
By Lois Duncan

“These are my girls! These are my lovely children! No one must hurt them! No one must hold them down!” One of the most disturbing YA novels of the 1970s, Daughters of Eve skitters darkly around the edges of many of the anxieties of its era: fears of feminism, the rise of cults, the sexual revolution turning to seed. Set among an exclusive club of high school girls with little in common other than being chosen by charismatic advisor, we watch as their leader skillfully manages to harness, and wield, the immense and hidden power of teen-girl rage.

Secret History
By Donna Tartt

As in many of these books, the question of who is the greater danger, the mentor or the protégée, emerges. But whatever sinister dealings the precocious college students in Secret History take up, they begin under the sway of their Ancient Greek professor Julian Morrow, whom, another colleague snidely notes, “has some very odd ideas about teaching.” Richard Papin, the novel’s hero, immediately falls under his thrall, and under the thrall of Morrow’s tight-knit quarter of protégés, who exude a glamorous “coolness, a cruel mannered charm [that] had a strange, cold breath of the ancient world.”

Laura
By Vera Caspary

Most know the classic film noir, starring a luminous Gene Tierney and an arch Clifton Webb, but the novel is even more crackling and deliciously perverse. At the story’s center is the twisty relationship between Laura Hunt, a keenly ambitious “modern career woman” in the Peggy Olson mode and her Svengali, narrator, Waldo Lydecker, the powerful Manhattan newspaper columnist who gave her her “first taste of champagne.” Lydecker takes pride in having guided Laura from “a gauche child” to a sophisticated Manhattan ad executive who is “as well known at opening nights as [his] graying Van Dyke or his gold-banded stick.” But when Laura’s interests (and desires) move beyond being just another Lydecker accessory, things turn very dark indeed.

The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James

When Isabel Archer first meets Madame Merle, she is lured as if by a siren song to the sound of the older woman playing a piano sonata. Fatefully, James’s heroine places herself eagerly “under [the] influence” of the enigmatic and hypnotic woman who will eventually engineer Isabel’s catastrophic marriage. The scene in which Isabel learns of her mentor’s betrayal is heartbreaking. “What have you done with me?” she asks, horrified. In reply, Madame Merle slowly rises, “stroking her muff, but not removing her eyes from Isabel’s face. ‘Everything,’ she answered.”