Imagine a world where women are pitted against each other, forced to comply with nigh unattainable standards of beauty and behaviour, and live their lives entirely according to the whims of men who treat them with nothing but contempt. Oh sorry, you don’t need to imagine. That’s our reality*. Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours** is our reality up to eleven. I’ll say it now: massive trigger warnings for eating disorders, shaming of women’s sexuality, rape culture, misogyny, domestic violence and toxic masculinity. As someone who, like most women, has struggled with body image (etc.), I was not terribly affected, but I cannot speak for other readers and potential readers.
freida is entering the final year of School. She is 16, and with her 29 classmates she has spent the last twelve years of her life in a routine of maintaining stringent beauty standards, learning proper feminine behaviours, and being rated weekly on her appearance by her peers as well as total strangers. In the future earth of freida’s birth, sex-selective abortion almost led to the extinction of the human race. It was decided that women must be designed and educated to become the mothers of future generations. But, since men need more than just wifely companionship, a large number of concubines are also required. freida’s destiny is to become either one of ten companions, a concubine, or a chastity–a celibate teacher for girls at the School.
As the year progresses, freida*** faces the rivalry of her fellow students, the loss of her friendship with isabel, and the ultimate challenge: to secure her fate as a companion. Being a companion means mothering sons. It means security with a husband. It means being terminated at 40, before facing the risk of age and unattractiveness. But it is the best option available to the girls in this post-Apocalyptic universe, and what freida wants–as much as she is permitted to want anything.
Only Ever Yours is an addicting and relentless read. Products of their environment and unending misogynistic, fatphobic propaganda, none of the characters are especially likeable. freida stumbles through the story making poor decision after poor decision, because she lacks the ruthlessness, the communication skills and critical thinking to successfully manipulate her own future. This makes parts of the story frustrating and is an excellent aspect of O’Neill’s writing. She wants us to feel freida’s futility.
There is an awful, fatalistic sense to the story; even freida’s highest hopes should seem a terrible doom to readers. O’Neill does a splendid job of making clear to the readers how damaging freida’s world is to her and to women in general. She avoids making freida a rebellious girl who dreams of a better future for herself or other women. In fact, freida is deeply embedded in her reality. It is what she takes for given that builds the Euro-Zone’s dystopic society.
Though gripping, the novel does take a while to come to its point. This is partly because O’Neill chose to focus on freida’s whole 16th year in the school rather than beginning at a time closer to the Ceremony where the girls are selected to their particular roles. This does make sense from a narrative point of view. However, it also means scenes of nasty behaviour and group shaming continue long after the reader should have been trusted to get the point. While this also might have been intentional, it does stultify the story at the beginning.
A lot of reviewers of this book are rightly terrified of the possibility of O’Neill’s nightmare coming true. However, I’m myself not so sure about the specifics. Since I’m personally of the view that much of the modern standards of beauty are driven by capitalism****, I was somewhat surprised that the economy of Only Ever Yours seems to be significantly centrally controlled. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of free enterprise either, and even roles such as managing a shoe factory are hereditary. As a mechanism for control, the maintenance of an impossible ideal weight and constantly flawless makeup is effective, but I can think of others. So I found the scenario a little unbelievable, but willingly suspended this disbelief. After all, O’Neill’s vision is more parable than prediction.
What is more interesting is that signs of the society’s decay creep into the narrative. Whether these are the seeds of humanity’s extinction, or just the seeds of more positive changes, is up to the reader to decide. Hints are also strewn that this misogynistic society is toxic to its male inhabitants as well. It is heavily implied that non-Caucasian facial features have essentially been designed out with some few exceptions; freida herself is dark skinned and constantly afronted by the fact that white skin is more admired. As for homosexuality… well my questions on that issue were answered in about the manner I expected. While the hints of fraying at the Euro-Zone society’s edges are subtle, they do contain the warning that such a world is unsustainable.
Only Ever Yours is not an easy read. For some, it may be severely triggering. But with these warnings in mind, and braced for the vicious, subtle violence, it is nonetheless a well-crafted, thought-provoking novel.
*Okay okay, but not ALL men, right?
**Which for some reason my brain keeps wanting me to call For Your Eyes Only for no reason I can discern — the unattainable standards of the Bond girl, perhaps?
***Women are not important enough to warrant a capital letter. Though what grated me more in freida’s name was how it is spelled–she, like the other girls at the school, is named after a famous model or actress. Chastities are named after saints. When they are introduced, the boys are named after great historical thinkers and leaders.
****This is not to say that precapitalist standards of beauty were attainable by most women either, mind, but they were different.
****This is neither an official video nor an original version of Kraftwerk’s Das Modell. Allegedly, Kraftwerk hated the Rammstein cover, but I feel like the sick irony comes through more prominently in this version.