Irish Book Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is a biting look at our cultural attitudes towards and treatment of women.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (US cover)

Set in what appears to be a private school in a future Europe, we see a world in which young women trained from birth to be beautiful, subservient, and always available for men’s pleasure. Although it’s suggested that the society that created this school is now failing, and not as powerful or wealthy as it once was, order is maintained not by armed guards and coercion, but by the girls themselves. Indoctrinated in a ruthless social code that questions nothing, and strives only to be ever more beautiful, toned, coiffed, made-up, and stylish, the brainwashed girls maintain a rigid hierarchy based on an online popularity contest — they are rated weekly by the pool of men who may choose one of them for a mate when they turn sixteen.

The girls are clones, each representing an ideal of female beauty. Each year the same number are grown, to ensure a steady supply of healthy and shapely mates for the male members of the Euro-zone. We never get to see outside the school, so have only the girl’s imperfect understanding — shaped by “reality” TV shows — of their world to go on. The school and their ranking is the girls’ entire world, their only outlet posting to “My Face,” where they ask each other to rate new outfits or hairstyles. It’s a world of teenage hormones, uncertainly, and no distractions, no family, no breaks, and no dissent tolerated. All the worst aspects of adolescence magnified by isolation.

The story centers on frieda (none of the girls merits a capital letter, just to underline their second-class status) a popular girl who seems to never have “top dog” potential, being instead the best-friend of the long-time #1-ranked girl, isabel. As the girls begin their final year before they are selected as a mate or else sent to spend their life as a concubine, isabel suddenly goes off the rails, withdrawing from company and neglecting her appearance. frieda must now navigate the new social pecking order, while trying to understand what has happened her friend.

Although it’s tempting to discuss the plot endlessly, it would certainly spoil the book for first-time readers. I’ll have to fall back on comparisons to convey the company this fabulous novel is keeping, and in many ways surpassing. The Handmaid’s Tale comes immediately to mind, if Atwood had foreseen Facebook and modern teenagers’ endless quest for likes and electronic approval. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another probable influence, although the society in this book has more of the flavor of a religious fundamentalist compound than Ishiguro’s Oxford-educated, upper middle class Britain. Logan’s Run, with it’s age-limitations and fetishization of youth is another antecedent.

The author, debut novelist Louise O’Neill, was inspired by the commodification and impersonalization of beauty that she saw while working for Vogue. A lot of parents will be able to relate to the negative affects that reaching for such an unobtainable (and ultimately Photoshopped) standard of beauty has on young girls, and how those beauty norms affect their relationship with boys their age, especially as the easy availability of online porn form unreasonable expectations and impressions. It’s a timely book, and one that should spur a great deal of discussion and soul-searching.

O’Neill keeps social criticism from overwhelming her novel through telling an engrossing tale that plays a vivid protagonist against some very recognizable foils. frieda is desperately trying to conform, even while she begins to question everything — as all children do in adolescence — struggling to find acceptance and power within the pack. Social power is given to those, like blonde, blue-eyed megan, who becomes #1 after isabel melts down, who internalize the rules of beauty and popularity, and conform apparently unthinkingly. megan is brazenly manipulative, but because she knows the rules of the game, and seizes power, nobody is going to openly confront her and risk their place in the hierarchy. The perfect Stepford wife, megan is totally dedicated to winning the game, and never stops to wonder if they should be playing.

Only Ever Yours will anger those who don’t like to think about the inequalities or injustices in our society and prefer to believe 21st century capitalism has formed some kind of moral paradise, those who like to think they’re beyond the need for feminism, and those who smugly comment “not all men” in any discussion of male or white privilege. A spot on next year’s most-banned books list seems inevitable! But, those pious individuals are the ones who most need to be knocked off their comfortable high horses, and made to reflect on the inequalities and misogyny inherent in society, despite the progress made. Anyone who observes contemporary culture or is raising girls will grimace in recognition of the truths O’Neill observes; no less valid by virtue of being transferred to a future dystopia.

Only Ever Yours (UK cover)

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (UK/IRL cover)

To an Irish reader, coming from a community where it’s not that long since women were obliged to give up public-sector jobs after marriage, and with an entrenched professional class where power was, and often still is, kept in certain families, the distance from our world to the society in the book will seem very short indeed.

It’s interesting to read this book and compare it to other popular dystopias. There’s no subtext of religious salvation, assumptions of societal exceptionalism, or fetishism of personal freedom and as one often finds in books by American authors — such as The Hunger Games or Divergent. The philosophy underlying the school and the society that created it is very 1950’s Ireland: saintly wives are to mind the home, do what the husband says, and raise children, while the rest must do whatever a man wants — unless they’re ugly, and so must teach the next crop of potential mates. The religious fervor of mid-century Catholicism is channelled into the cult of beauty, the pursuit of perfection of appearance. The local big men are taken care of, not with fat envelopes of unmarked bills, but with female bodies: sleek, beautiful, young, and as many as they want. It’s an absolutely scathing and unforgiving look at the logical extension of contemporary attitudes towards women and the sexualization of childhood.

Only Ever Yours is a damn disturbing read that explores uncomfortable truths as only the best fiction can. You’ll be forcing your friends and book clubs to read it, because it’s a book you’ll need to discuss at length.



Learn more about Louise O’Neill and Only Ever Yours on her blog…

Buy Only Ever Yours (Irish cover) from Ireland’s own…

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