Having read Louise O’Neill’s debut, Only Ever Yours, virtually in one sitting, I still can’t decide if it’s a messy triumph or an occasionally-brilliant mess. It gets worse: does it reverse, share or obliterate the flaws of her second novel, Asking For It, a more straightforward take on feminism and rape culture? Is it ultimately shallow, or sneakily profound? Despite the fact that it sometimes seems as if O’Neill read the chapters of Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism that deal with girls and young women and then had a nightmare about them, is there something important here?
In a indeterminate future, women are no longer born but reproduced artificially. eves – the lack of a capital letter in both their names and titles indicating their low worth – grow up in a school where they are taught how to be appealing to men. Ranked by boys of their generation whom they never meet, they know that, when they turn seventeen and leave for the outside world, they will either be companions or concubines. The only other possible fates – to become one of the chastities who are responsible for the education of the eves, or to be consigned to the terrifying ‘Underground’ – do not bear thinking about. frieda, our narrator, is fortunate; her close friendship with the highest-ranked eve, isabel, has offered her a degree of protection throughout her time at the school. However, in her final year, as isabel retreats from the group, frieda is thrown back on her own resources – and realises how little she is equipped to cope on her own.
Why Only Ever Yours works
frieda’s world is not intended to be a realistic dystopia. In many ways, it reads like a response to two things: the cultural and social pressures heaped upon teenage girls, and other YA dystopian novels. In particular, I was thinking of Kiera Cass’s sugary The Selection and its sequels, which imagines a world where a group of girls have to compete for the hand of a prince but plays its premise absolutely straight. It doesn’t matter that this world is economically impossible, and incredibly unlikely; O’Neill is not trying to write speculative fiction, but offering a critique on how things are for young women today. By amping up everything to eleven, she gives us a glimpse of what it might be like to feel that you will never measure up, and that what happens in school will be all that ever matters – because in this world, that’s true. In doing so, she offers us a way to think about the worries of young women that does not allow us to dismiss them as trivial. The eves are obsessed with clothes, make-up, ageing, popularity and weight, but to them, these things are literally a matter of life or death (while all women are eventually ‘terminated’ at a certain age, companions are allowed longer life-spans than lower-ranked concubines). The setting allows us to listen into the loops that go through the minds of teenage girls, without immediately defaulting to telling them they’re wrong.
Only Ever Yours delivers a violent riposte to readers who want to dismiss this ‘girly’ world as boring and silly (not least by being as gripping as any ‘grip-lit’). This is most vividly illustrated when the ‘Inheritants’ – the generation of boys that these girls were designed for – enter the picture. frieda strikes up a relationship with one of the boys, Darwin, but he’s totally unable to understand the world in which she lives. When she confides one of his secrets to the top-ranked eve, megan, we completely understand how afraid she was, and how little resources she had to fight back against megan, who could genuinely ruin the rest of her life by spreading false rumours. In contrast, Darwin dismisses this as ridiculous: ‘You used me, embarrassed me in front of all my friends, because you wanted megan to be your friend?... Was she endangering your life? Threatening to bore you to death with chitter-chatter about make-up or whatever else you girls talk about?’ The boys tell the eves that they are petty, bitchy and shallow, but how else can they be? This is how they were designed to be.
Why Only Ever Yours doesn’t work
It’s clear from frieda’s internal monologue that the eves have not been genetically modified to be intellectually or emotionally different from ordinary women. Yet they do not turn to a survival strategy that women have used throughout the centuries – the friendship of other women. O’Neill offers us glimpses of links between the girls throughout the book, but these are vastly outnumbered by the daily viciousness that they encounter from their fellow eves. Fair enough, frieda’s relationship with isabel was obviously very close and supportive before their last year at school – but we’re given precious little of it before isabel breaks away. The suggestion that the two girls were in love also feels unsatisfactory. I wanted their relationship to be romantic or platonic, but not this uncertain mix of the two, which somehow manages to undermine their commitment to each other either as friends or as lovers. While frieda briefly observes closer relationships between other eves – jessie and liz, the Sweet Valley High reference twins, and the group of girls who want to be concubines – we don’t really hear much about them.
Because of this, Only Ever Yours plays into some of the YA cliches that it attempts to skewer. The only girls who seem to have much personality are frieda, isabel and agyness, a girl who has resigned herself relatively happily to a future as a chastity, and so poses no sexual threat. megan, the queen bee, possesses no redeeming features whatsoever, and her posse are hardly better; indeed, we are clearly meant to think that jessie and liz, for example, are pretty stupid. In contrast to YA novels that examine popularity more realistically and sympathetically – Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, or O’Neill’s own Asking For It – this is harmful and unhelpful. By accepting that all the eves are real people, and real victims, O’Neill could have steered away from presenting female villains, but placed the blame squarely with the system that created them. I’ve no doubt that’s what she intended to do, but it doesn’t come across in the writing.
As we pull at these loose threads, Only Ever Yours unravels further. While some of the world-building can be handwaved, some of it has a direct impact on the feminist messages of the story. Thirty eves are born each year in ‘the Eurozone’; if nothing goes wrong, ten are destined to be companions and twenty concubines. Even in a world with a decimated population, it does not make sense to waste the contributions of women in this way. There has never been a society where women did not work, whatever the rhetoric about appropriate female roles, and there has never been a society where women’s intellectual value was not appreciated as well, albeit in limited contexts. By imagining such a society, Only Ever Yours lends credence to the inaccurate belief that, to misquote the historian of childhood Lloyd deMause, ‘The history of women is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken’. This encourages us to forget the roles that women have always played. We’ve come full circle and are back in the world of The Selection, where the role of a queen is to look pretty and remain quiet.
Only Ever Yours is unputdownable, unflinching and thought-provoking. But it hasn’t managed to completely break free from the YA mould in which it was made. I had mixed feelings about Asking For It, as well, but I’m still keen to see what O’Neill writes next. She is saying things that need to be said, and I think she will get better at it.