Sugar and Spice and Steel

By Karen BrissetteJuly 25, 2018

Sugar and Spice and Steel

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

MEGAN ABBOTT PROVES she’s still the queen of uncovering the dark complexity of the female psyche with her new novel, Give Me Your Hand. It uses all the strengths she’s known for and gives them more room to develop, tracking the evolution of a single relationship across the years. Two teenage girls become friends, rivals, enemies, and accessories, accumulating a tangle of secrets and betrayals with long-tentacled consequences that will affect them as they become women. Abbott has made her career exploring variations of this theme — the fierce and intense energy of female friendships, the competitive drive thrumming through high-achieving girls and women, the steel lying beneath the sugar and spice.

This newest version is less about dissecting sociological power structures than it is about two specific personalities crashing together. Rather than spotlighting familiar segments of girl-culture — gymnasts, cheerleaders, the various social and sexual politics of suburban high school cliques — this is slow-burning suspense charting the circumstances of two women whose conflict is not the ordinary relatable friction arising from athletic, social, or sibling rivalries. Instead, Abbott presents a granular look at the psychological fallout affecting two women whose lives become twisted so tightly, the passage of years does nothing to weaken the connection.

Diane’s and Kit’s paths cross three times over the course of their lives, never for very long, but each meeting changes them, leaving behind a small piece of what will eventually build into their tragedy, a relationship strengthened by competition and ruined by confession, summed up in Abbott’s tidily ambiguous understatement: “Diane, you changed my life. You made my life.”

They first meet at a cross-country summer camp when they are 15. The novel is told entirely through Kit’s eyes, and she remembers noticing Diane straightaway; the willowy Catholic schoolgirl with the mile-long legs and beautiful gait, making it all seem effortless. When she’s not running, Diane’s quiet determination and self-possession awaken Kit’s curiosity along with her competitive drive, and she resolves to discover what makes her tick: “I know I wanted to beat her. In part because she didn’t seem to be competing with any of us.”

Kit’s interest is platonic, somewhat scientific, but it emerges with an intensity usually found in a romantic attraction. She takes note of how Diane carries herself, how she interacts — or doesn’t — with the other girls, what she’s reading; fascinated by what lies beneath the inscrutable surface of a girl so seemingly detached from the world around her, suspecting she holds “secret knowledge” beneath her shining blonde hair and impassive expression: “[E]veryone always likes the best, wants the most, admires deeply, the girl who’s just out of reach. The girl no one can touch, really. We don’t know why we’re drawn, but it’s unstoppable.”

To Kit, Diane is truly “other,” and Abbott establishes their differences before the two even speak. Kit is earthy, working class, sensual, tactile. Her deadbeat dad is largely out of the picture, and her mother works at an animal clinic, bringing home stray dogs and the medical and biological smells of the lab. Money is tight, so Kit also has a job at a fast food restaurant, frequently smelling of chicken grease, oil, and sweat, and when she’s running, she attests, “I sweat all the time, wildly, like a sorrel mare in heat.”

Diane’s family has money — her glamorous mother visits the camp in an ostentatiously luxurious car, but Diane herself is ethereal, barely perspiring during their long runs, never seeming to eat or to exert herself as she “floats” along the course: “She was fast, but I soon figured out she was not as fast as the promise of those long legs. Sometimes I’d think if she let herself sweat, she’d be unstoppable. Her jaw so tight, her brow furrowed like our bull mastiff’s. I wanted to try that hard.”

It’s not until the last night of camp, while sharing a hotel room with Diane and two other girls during an away meet, that Kit breaks through Diane’s shell, unknowingly binding their fates. In what is essentially a road trip slumber party, “we swapped secrets all night, which is what you do on overnight trips, especially when you might never see these girls again, different schools, different worlds. You felt like you could say anything. Be anyone.”

When it is Diane’s turn to spill her secrets, she claims not to have any, becoming uncomfortable when the others interrogate her, until Kit gallantly intervenes by volunteering her own secret, after which she becomes uncharacteristically emotional, shifting the room’s attention from Diane, changing the mood from confrontational and confessional to tearful and comforting. Diane remains placid on her own bed, offering only “my mom always says, you don’t have a self until you have a secret.”

Diane’s aloofness cracks later that evening, when she becomes ill and allows Kit to take care of her, holding back her hair, sleeping beside her until morning, neither of them aware that what is happening at cross-country camp is not going to stay at cross-country camp, and will affect both of their lives in unforeseen, deeply destructive ways.

Two years later, Diane transfers to Kit’s public school after the death of her father, shrouded in the same impenetrable aura, a “locked box without a key,” with her long skirts, modest blouses, and grave detachment, still holding the same fascination for Kit: “Amid the sea of lank ponytails, a spray of tattoos, of crop tops and low jeans, she stood apart from everyone. Her focus always seemed elsewhere, head down, lost in her own thoughts, a shadow falling between her eyes like a warning.”

Gym class finds them on familiar ground, side-by-side on the track: “We ran together that day, never more than a stride apart. I didn’t have her long legs and grace, but I made up for it with sheer pumping power. She made me work harder, and I made her work harder too.”

From that moment on, Diane seems to come out of herself, pleased to have found someone in whom she senses a kindred spirit, intimating her regard with pronouns: “‘We’re both so much better,’ she said, eyes on me. ‘No one can touch us.’”

This second phase of friendship is characterized by the healthy kind of competitive spirit: each girl pushing the other to strive and succeed. They are partnered together in AP chemistry; Kit is a complacently underachieving student, but again Diane proves herself to be exceptional, again awakening Kit’s ambition: “A yearning inside me I couldn’t explain, to know things, to be bigger, to care more. I’d never felt it before Diane, but now it was there, humming inside.”

In a roomful of adolescent boys with “a hundred jokes about stopcocks and a hundred ideas of how to use science to rip girls’ dresses off or maybe make their bras fall open,” Diane’s “seriousness and purpose” is a breath of fresh air, and when she suggests they both try for a science scholarship specifically for females, sponsored by the charismatic, controversial Dr. Lena Severin, a woman they both admire, Kit becomes as dedicated and talented a student as Diane. Theirs is an oppositional friendship; working together toward a prize only one of them can win, pitting natural aptitude against hard work, cementing the roles that will define them.

Diane continues to be oblique to Kit, a contradictory puzzle: “I’d never known anyone so private. It felt like you could hurt her just by looking at her, or you could never hurt her at all.” But when she finally does take Kit into her confidence, she reveals a secret that horrifies Kit so much, it ends their friendship unequivocally: “Was it what I wanted? Didn’t I crave all her secrets, plucking the heart of her mystery? I wanted to know her secrets, but I didn’t want them to be this.

Twelve years later, Kit is a postdoc at the Severin Lab, working for the very same woman she and Diane had idolized as teens. Kit is the only other woman on Dr. Severin’s team, which has just received a grant for a two-year study of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), for which there are only two postdoc slots. Cautiously optimistic that her gender and her performance may give her an edge over the otherwise all-male team, she is unprepared but also unsurprised when Diane enters her life once more, poached by Dr. Severin from a rival’s team. They are fated to repeat their familiar pattern of respect and rivalry, but with something much murkier than friendship simmering between them this time, something halfway between an impulse to protect and an impulse to destroy.

Give Me Your Hand is not likely to elicit the sparks of psychic recognition Abbott’s fans have come to expect from her books; the situation is too specific, the personalities far from archetypical. However, there are certainly familiar touchpoints and motifs: the convoluted inner lives of teenage girls, the relentless drive to succeed in a competitive, rarefied field, the angling for the approval of a woman in a role model and mentor role, and the deep-down darkness of the female experience, here examined through the mysterious, violent biology of women.

The culmination of the drama of Kit and Diane is played out against the backdrop of PMDD, as they are immersed in the study of a rare hormonal condition causing women to experience dramatic mood swings, uncontrollable rage, and violence every single month. As Kit posits: “Don’t we all feel we have something banked down deep inside just waiting for its moment, the slow gathering of hot blood?”

Although she and Diane are adversaries, they are still united by biology; in a highly competitive male-dominated field, it’s not about being the last girl standing but often about being the only girl standing in a room filled with jealous men who resent your presence, perhaps made even more suspicious after spending so much time researching the seething violence latent in women, “the purple marrow of female rage. The fear all men have that there’s something inside us that shifts, and turns. A living thing, once dormant, stirring now, and filled with rage.”

The men in the lab are the same as those high school boys using science to make bras open, but with different behaviors:

[T]he shoulder-squeezing predations of the older researchers. The fumbles and porn-slicked joking of the postdocs, never sure what to do with females around. When you meet the women in their lives — Maxim’s multilingual, opera-singing girlfriend, Juwon’s dazzling mathematician wife — it becomes more confusing.

They are nakedly ambitious, but Diane and Kit’s conflict is trickier, more emotionally nuanced. Unencumbered by a “male rigidity” that can only see “black and white, right and wrong […] Women have to live so much of their life in the in-betweens.”

This idea of the “in-between” is essentially what makes this book tick — two women whose relationship occupies these liminal spaces, shaping and influencing each other’s personalities and ambitions, shifting between friendship and rivalry, admiration and envy, trust and betrayal, Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, a respect that can be twitched so easily into disgust.

It’s an unexpected thrill to see Abbott’s themes played out over the course of a dozen or so years, to see the way women are shaped and defined by events in their past. This is a book that haunts, that demands a reread to chew through all of its layers. If there’s one takeaway here, it’s to choose your confidantes wisely. As both Kit and Diane learn, “When you get away with something it’s yours only, forever. Heavy and irremediable.” But when it’s shared, it can be much more dangerous, and you don’t get to control how it comes back.


Karen Brissette is the most popular reviewer on Goodreads. She also maintains the blog Bloggy Come Lately.

LARB Contributor

Karen Brissette is just a book nerd in Queens who has done nothing significant with her life other than holding the title of “most popular reviewer” on Goodreads for many years through a combination of monsterporn reviews, moderately coherent babblings, and many references to The Legend of Billie Jean. She is also to blame for a hefty number of the internet’s cat pictures. These days, she writes about books at Bloggy Come Lately:


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!