Only Ever Yours (Louise O’Neill)
They have told us that in order to succeed we need to be good girls, we need to follow the rules, we need to look pretty and speak nicely and be pleasant…. I’ve waxed every last hair on my body. I have taken my pills. I have gone to bed hungry every night since I was four years old.
This is a story set in a world where girls are no longer born, but designed. Not just that, they are designed to be perfect, pliable companions to men. Louise O’Neill’s ultra-patriarchal dystopia is set in a future where women have died off following a population crisis and the preference for boy-children. With the human body having adapted to no longer being able to carry female foetuses to term, only boys are born—and wanted. Girls can only be artifically designed. Known as eves, they must attend the School in their respective zones (Euro Zone, the Americas and Chindia), where they are taught how to please men, to be the perfect wives and produce sons, or directed to become concubines for the pleasure and use of men.
The narrator is a 16-year-old called frieda—yes, girls’ names are in lower case, a continual chilling reminder of the place of women in this society—who is in her final year at the School. As far as the eves are concerned, year 16 is when they can look forward to starting their new lives, when everything that they have learnt and imbibed is put to the test as they gear up to be chosen by the eligible bachelors in their generation. These young men, known as Inheritants (note the capitals), were born in the same year that the eves were designed. And just so they have a decent crop to choose from, thrice the number of eves are designed as Inheritants born each year. This means that only a third of the eves will go on to live the coveted lives of companions. In rare cases when an eve isn’t good enough to even be a concubine, she becomes a chastity, doomed to spend the rest of her years in the School, training eves of future generations.
For the eves, transferred from the Nursery to the School at the age of four, there is no life other than learning how to be an object of desire for the use (though abuse would be a more apt term). They are fed a relentless diet of always smiling, always being pleasant, never losing their temper, always being thin, always looking pretty—these messages even play in their dorms when they are asleep so they might subconsiously imbibe them in case being stuffed down their throats didn’t work. Messages like, “I am a good girl. I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.”
The eves are not allowed to have opinions or even be literate or have any sort of scholarly exposure—in fact, being ‘academic’ is as much of an insult as being a ‘feminist’ is—and I’m not even sure they can write their names, and they definitely cannot do basic arithmetic. They are not encouraged to have any interests or hobbies unless it has something to do with their higher goal of being pretty and perfectly compliant, and thus desirable to men. So the girls are encouraged to be on the social media platform called MyFace, clearly an extreme form of Facebook, compare their bodies on the Your Body or Mine platform, and follow online soap operas that play out the stories of their futures.
As frieda embarks on her final year at the School, suddenly things seem topsy-turvy. Her best friend isabel is a stranger to her, and—horror of horrors—she’s even started to stop caring about herself and is getting fat. The sleepless nights worrying about isabel and about her own future are starting to show and cracks appear in frieda’s perfect veneer. Once the number-two eve, to isabel’s number-one, frieda has to struggle to stay in the top 10 and thus have a chance of being chosen as a companion. But frieda is no Katniss Everdeen. So if you’re waiting for her to launch a revolution to overthrow the patriarchy, you’ll be disappointed.
If you leave aside the macabre setting of the book, Only Ever Yours seems like your regular vacuous teenage drama showcasing the worst stereotypes of adolescent girls. Thus, you have all the jealousy, backbiting, cliques and competition, along with body issues, boy issues and insecurity. But herein lies the brilliance of O’Neill’s world building. She takes the worst of the pressures and prejudices young women in our world are faced with and makes them horrifiyingly real; it’s a bit too disturbing to be called a satire.
By taking the idea to an extreme level in her ghastly, dystopian creation, O’Neill parodies the ridiculous pressures put on women’s bodies in our world—the obsession with being thin, having the perfect skin or hair—and never questioning who or why created these standards; it normalizes the acceptance of being an object of desire. There were two things in the book I found especially chilling. One was the eves’ attitude towards hunger: complete denial. In fact, there is even a vomitarium in the dining hall! The other was the acceptance of domestic violence and violence against women in general as completely normal. While talking about a reality show where a man hit his wife (because he thought she was getting too friendly with another Inheritant), one of the girls says, “Why didn’t she deny it?” and then goes on to add, “He’s yummy. I’d let him beat me any day.” In a recorded video, the man in question says, “What happens between me and my companion is my business. I reserve the right to do what I want in my own home.” This is too close to reality for comfort.
While Only Ever Yours brilliantly shows us the extreme ends of the some of the values our society holds dear today—and tell us that we do so of our own choice—it falls short of being a complete story. A story has to have some sort of closure. Yes, it was a fantastic set-up, but what was the point? A shocking ending is all very well and frieda may not be the easiest of protagonists to sympathize or identify with, but some sort of redemption or hope is the least one expects from a story, especially in a setting as compelling as this one.
One also doesn’t get a sense of frieda and isabel’s friendship. frieda keeps moaning about how distant isabel is, but we don’t really feel it. Further, since the reason for isabel’s self-destruction isn’t difficult to guess, the reveal is disappointing as well. One question that niggled at me was that if the eves were so carefully genetically engineered, why could frieda not have been made with a more pliable personality? I also did not understand why the girls sometimes felt uncomfortable when they were looked at by the Inheritants. Isn’t that what they’d been trained for? Of course, a novel such as this is never going to have a warm and fuzzy ending, but one did expect more.
This is a difficult book to rate. Great world building but a below-par story. Be that as it may, it was always unlikely you’d have felt good after reading it.