I was seriously excited to start reading this one. Louise O’Neill was the name constantly popping up on the #ukyachat discussions and the premise seemed a YA-style The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) (a personal favourite – wait, who am I kidding? A universal favourite!) It didn’t fail to live up to expectations.
O’Neill crafts a world in which women, or rather ‘eves’, are bred for the pleasure of men. They will be sorted into one of three roles upon reaching adulthood: a companion, a concubine, or a chastity. The roles are self-explanatory, and thus most strive for companionship. To achieve this, one has to be beautiful, composed and feminine. frieda is an eve (note the lack of a capitalised F in her name: women aren’t important enough in the world of Only Ever Yours (2014) to warrant such ‘respect’. Sometimes the eves are referred to merely by number. In contrast, men have classical, studious names like Darwin and Augustus) and she’s been used to being the #3 eve in her class. Then, in final year she drops to #10.
Only Ever Yours, whilst sounding like a nightmarish future vision, is chillingly grounded in what any 21st century female reader will be able to identify as their own world. freida’s obssession with food and the compulsive, all-consuming need to look thin whilst battling desires to eat calorific food, is reflective of our capitalist patriarchal society which encourages young girls to base their body aspirations off the undiversifed size 0 models of fashion magazines who just want to churn out a profit; the pressure for the eves to conform to the sexual preferences of males or be branded ‘frigid’ is a shadowed comment on rape culture; and the constant need in freida and her fellow eves to be liked by each other whilst not actually valuing each other as individuals speak to the school hierarchy that any girl who went to school is familiar with. The most biting and relatable detail for me was the pitting of girls against each other within this society: the sense of competition among the female sex is not one equalled by the male sex in either real life or within this novel.
The skill with which O’Neill creates this Black Mirror-esque world is astonishing: from the mirrored surfaces in the school that force the eves to constantly assess their physical selves, to the setting in a school itself: a sure comment on the role of education in empowering, or conversely demeaning, young women. However, when the focus turns to the Inheritants, the boys who will chose the eves and their roles, Only Ever Yours veers slightly off this exciting course. Obviously, the role of the Inheritants is crucial to O’Neill’s comment on how women lead their lives under the influence of male decisions, but freida’s obsession with Darwin – for nothing other than his looks or position – is grating. There is no depth to her attraction to him, and thus it’s disappointing to see her succumb to him so easily, and never fully rebel. Moreover, as a feminist novel, it works by negation rather than instruction, which is unusual. And so, like with many proto-feminist novels, and therefore seemingly regressively, the only way out for freida and women in her society is via death.
I also felt like there were a lot of unanswered questions, such as how are the girls bred – are they born, or created and designed in labs? Also, why is freida not good enough for Darwin – is it solely because of her #10 ranking, and if so, has this information been made known to Darwin and his father?
Only Ever Yours was a great read, and a book I think it would be beneficial to encourage young girls to read: they will recognise a part of themselves in freida’s low self-esteem due to societal standards, and it will hopefully encourage them to ask the question freida never manages to come to: What’s the point of always comparing yourself to other people when there are a lot of things about yourself you can’t, and don’t need to, change? Just be happy with who you are!