GIVE ME YOUR HAND, by Megan Abbott. Little, Brown and Co.; 342 pp., $27.
“You don’t have a self until you have a secret,” says a character in Megan Abbott’s seventh novel, “Give Me Your Hand.” But what happens when the secret isn’t yours but someone else’s to carry? Does it rot you from the inside and make you hysterical? Abbott explores the limits and burdens of female friendship in this tale of Kit and Diane, two women bound together by a dark high school confession that they both try to bury. It surfaces 12 years later when the two end up working in the same laboratory, vying for spots on the same research team.
In high school, Kit Owens is content to do just enough to get by until she meets Diane, a quiet and odd loner who transfers in from a private school. They become fast friends, yet Kit doesn’t really know Diane. They spend all their time studying together; Diane spurs Kit to run faster on the cross country team and try harder in AP chemistry. Soon, they are competing for the same science scholarship.
Theirs is, like many female friendships, one that walks a line between support and sly competition. Diane changes Kit’s path, convinces her that she can be taken seriously. Diane is perfect, but an enigma. “What I didn’t know then,” Kit remembers, “was that all that perfection, held so tightly, can be a shield, either to keep something out or to keep something in. To hide it.” They trade secrets — but Diane’s is dark and shameful, so powerful that it disrupts Kit to her core.
“I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together,” Kit says, when Diane comes back into her life as an adult. “We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race.” Kit is working as a researcher on PMDD — a premenstrual dysphoric disorder project with a pre-eminent female scientist, the same one she and Diane idolized as teenagers. When Diane appears in the lab as the newest hire, Kit has to relive her nightmares from high school. Diane is once again her competition, this time for a spot on the PMDD research team. When Kit’s co-worker dies under unfortunate circumstances in the lab, Kit has to decide if she wants to keep allowing Diane to dictate her actions.
Abbott’s characters speak in pithy, clipped sentences. They make doomy proclamations that tell the reader that something important and scary is coming: “We do know the one thing no one else in the world knows about the other,” Kit says about her partner, her friend, her competition. “The only important thing.”
Abbott writes high school well, and her alternating then/now chapters balance teenage perception and identity with the extreme competition of the adult scientific world. Diane convinces Kit that they are the same: “You are like me, Kit. You’re just like me.” It’s hard for Kit to abandon this narrative since she knows Diane’s secret. But Diane’s perception is skewed, too. When she tells Kit how she sees her, Kit says, “It felt like she was seeing something in me that she wanted to, something I had that she didn’t. But it wasn’t really a thing I had, or a thing that I was. It was just part of being in the world, of living.”
Diane’s secret and the lengths she’ll go to cover it up are predictable. The subtlety of "Give Me Your Hand" lies in the nuance of the women’s relationship: how, particularly in our teenage years, those we idolize can be bad for us yet also push us to our greatest heights. Friendship can be both a poison and a tonic. Abbott alludes to other stories that are full of blood, poison and dark secrets: “Wuthering Heights,” “Hamlet," “Macbeth.”
“Why did you tell me?” Kit pleads. “Now it’s a part of me too.” The extent to which we can hold onto one another’s secrets without damaging ourselves is questionable. Kit’s mother tells her, “You do these things . . . and they can’t ever be undone. The hole closes up, but the body remembers.” Kit spends her life reliving what Diane has told her, repeating the trauma of Diane’s secret and making choices based on the poison Diane pours into her ear.
While the two women vie for a place in a study about female madness, they go to greater and greater lengths to keep the secret that inadvertently birthed their identities. Until they can’t.