A review of Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill
After a global catastrophe, where humanity almost died out, a new society emerged. A society that prized men so highly it often chose to terminate pregnancies if the baby was found to be a girl. This became so commonplace that the human body learned that a female foetus was to be destroyed and soon no girl babies were born.
The new society turned instead to science, choosing to create their women in a laboratory. The men took this opportunity to make the women perfect.
Instead of growing up in a family, the girls are raised in schools; each one taught how to behave so that they might fulfil their future role. Women fit into three categories: companions, concubines and chastities.
Each year, the ten ‘best’ girls are chosen to be companions to privileged young men and bear their sons.
Each year, the girls must vie to be the best that they can be. To be chosen.
I first heard about this book at the Newcastle Writers’ Conference, where so many of the speakers raved about it that I decided to get hold of a copy.
The story follows a young girl, Freida, as she struggles to fit in with the other girls at her school, in the final year before her future role is decided. She’s always been close to the number one ranked girl, Isabel, but something has changed over the summer and their relationship isn’t the same.
As Isabel begins a self-destructive cycle, over-eating and forcing her perfect body to become fat, Freida struggles with her own desire to be perfect.
It’s Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale.
The set-up for the story is a powerful and provocative examination of beauty standards in our own society and the expectations it has for women: how they must look, act and feel.
From an early age these girls are taught that they only exist to please men. Their own desires and personhood don’t matter. They mustn’t think or read because: “thinking too much robs you of your beauty. No man will ever want a companion who thinks too much.”
They must stick to a strict diet of deprivation to maintain a weight that allows their body to stay ‘perfect’. They are fed a diet of pills that block the absorption of calories and encouraged to purge if they have consumed anything remotely ‘unhealthy’. They’re taught about make-up and clothes and how to behave around men, who always come first.
But most chillingly, they’re taught – via subliminal message – that however perfect they might be, there is always room for improvement.
I’m still not sure exactly how I felt about this novel. I wanted to love it, having heard so many positive things.
And it is, at times, a frightening read. The conclusion is truly chilling. It will certainly stick in my mind for a long time to come.
But much of the novel is a little too Mean Girls for my taste. Set in a girls’ school, in a superficial world, where women are encouraged to be vapid and pretty, there is a lot of empty chatter, competition and nastiness, as the girls vie for position.
This only highlights how ridiculous this world is. It hammers home the message that this shallow focus on beauty comes at the expense of so much else, that underneath we’re all people with emotions and needs, who want nothing more than to be loved.
In that sense, the author uses this bickering and bullying as a tool to make a much bigger point, which she certainly achieves.
But the endless squabbling over who could sit with whom at lunch, and whose thighs were the slimmest, and who had the best hair did make my interest in the story waver a few times. The superficiality of this world is the point, but we don’t need to see quite so much of it. The novel could have been so much more powerful throughout, rather than at certain key moments.
Ultimately, whether you like this book will depend on your personal taste and how much you are willing to strip back the layers to get to the heart of the message. It certainly takes a harsh and uncompromising look at misogyny and the pressures that our society places on girls, which will linger long after you finish reading.
Find out more
Only Ever Yours on Amazon (affiliate link)
Only Ever Yours on Goodreads