Louise O’Neill is scary good at writing amazing but depressing books. I thought her second novel, Asking For It, was powerful, but her debut, Only Ever Yours, is arguably even darker. I’m happy I picked it up, but not happy having read it—this is about as far from a feel-good book as one gets.
I want to put some trigger warnings on this book and review but am not sure where to draw the lines; the entire book is kind of triggering. Definitely be wary of the body-shaming. But, I mean, while I wasn’t triggered from reading this book, there were points where I came close to feeling physically ill from the what the protagonist experiences and the way this fictional society is set up. Originally I planned to start off by saying that I don’t think women need to read this book, because in my comprehensive and infallible experience as a man, I feel like O’Neill has captured (and just amplified) all the negative messages women receive today. I’ve changed my mind; of course women, or some women, need to read this, because it’s easy for women to internalize society’s misogyny and believe that books like this aren’t necessary. The reason I was originally going to say it, though, was simply to emphasize that I think all men would benefit from reading this book.
One of the pernicious effects of male privilege is that I’ve seldom been told I can’t do or be something. It’s true that it is incredibly unlikely I will ever be a famous athlete, rap artist, or movie star. I have certain talents, most of which are best executed while sitting in a chair. But the message I have overwhelmingly received since I was a wee young thing goes like this: you can strive for whatever goals you want, and you will be judged based on your actions; we live in a wonderful meritocracy and you can do anything. Nobody ever told me I should worry about my appearance; I never had to learn how to judge whether my clothing gives the wrong signals or whether my make-up is too light or too heavy. I know the patriarchy exists and that this society is set up for someone like me because I can coast through it—society lends me inertia, leaves me untouched. The ultimate kicker, of course, is that because of this privileged existence, it is often difficult to understand the challenges less privileged people face. Simply admitting that I have privilege is good, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t give me perfect knowledge of all the struggles others face.
Only Ever Yours feels so essential for male readers, then, because it’s kind of like a crash course in the toxic socialization women face from childhood through adolescence. O’Neill ticks all the boxes that you would learn about if you pay attention and listen to women in other venues, but she exaggerates it and amplifies it, distilling it down into a core of toxicity, so there can be no doubt what effect it has on women. By telling a science-fictional story about a post-apocalyptic world where women are genetically engineered and decanted as “eves,” with lowercase names, and trained until age twenty when they are married off or turned into sex slaves, O’Neill is not so much attempting to prognosticate. Like many, she is using science fiction as a lens to examine our modern society: it’s not that this is where our world might be going, but that all the elements of this world already exist in our society today.
And it sticks with you. I can still hear the mantras that freida has memorized and repeats under stress: I'm a good girl. Good girls don’t cry, or Nobody likes fat girls. The only difference between freida’s world and ours is that in the former, these messages are explicitly taught through School, whereas in our world they might not be in the curriculum, but women still learn them in school. freida’s interactions with the other girls, particularly megan, are total Mean Girls territory. Similarly, the way her childhood friendship with isabel crumbles as they both fail to understand each other feels like something that all-too-often happens to people as they move into adolescence and acquiesce to the different priorities thrust upon them. As the Ceremony draws closer and the girls jockey to present themselves in the best light to the male Inheritants who will be determining their fate, the betrayals only get worse.
freida herself is, like Emma from Asking for It, another example of an unlikable but sympathetic protagonist. freida is very much an eve, a product of this society, and while occasionally we catch glimmers of the potential for independent thought or rebellion—nature documentaries, etc.—she largely plays the role she was designed to play. This is not a story about a girl rebelling against the system; it is a story about a girl subsuming herself, giving into the system, playing by the rules … and, of course, not being rewarded for it. I kept yearning, page after page and chapter after chapter, for her to break away, stop betraying isabel, fight back. I practically screamed it at the pages sometimes. I wanted her to do something more than stab other girls in the back and watch reality TV and consider outfits.
I am also fascinated by megan as an antagonist and a foil to freida. megan is much better than freida at playing the game; maybe she “wants” it more. The ways in which various people, such as chastity-ruth and Darwin, exhibit their loathing of megan while simultaneously rewarding her sociopathic behaviour, are very telling. Only Ever Yours captures the double pressures, physical and mental, that society places on women. In addition to the obsession with weight and appearance, which is a running refrain in this book, it’s also clear that in this world, eves cannot have friends. megan repeats, “We're best friends,” so many times, usually just before or after (or both, for good measure) she does something unspeakably foul to freida. And freida agrees. Because what else are you supposed to do, punch a bitch in the face? That would get you sent Underground. So Ms “I’m not here to make friends” megan plays the game and gets “ahead,” or at least thinks of it that way. She is willing to “be controlled,” which is considered a virtue in this society. Shudder.
The ending, of course, is an absolute downer in so many ways. We finally learn isabel’s big secret, the reason why she is so special. (I didn’t guess it, but I think it’s possible if one pays closer attention.) But O’Neill sticks to her guns and does not give in to the temptation of offering us anything as cheap as hope. If anything, chastity-ruth’s closing speech seems to imply that freida was almost certainly destined for failure from the moment she was born. This is like the hamartia of old in Greek tragedies, but flipped and used to criticize the society instead of the person. O’Neill’s point is that freida never stood a chance: she was bad at playing the game, and by the time she realized this and tried to rebel, it was too late.
Only Ever Yours thus offers a concentrated dose of the objectification, shaming, and misogynistic messaging that women receive growing up in our society. While women could take a lot away from this, I think men in particular will find this eye-opening. Moreover, while this book focuses overwhelmingly on women’s issues, O’Neill subtly includes examples of the harmful effects of patriarchy on men and boys. Consider the way Darwin’s feelings towards freida change. At first he is intrigued by her and the way she seems different from the other girls; eventually, after his father “persuades” him (through physical abuse, it’s heavily implied) that freida would be an unsuitable companion for a Judge, he gravitates towards the more odious but tractable megan. In this way, O’Neill observes how patriarchy’s constraints based on gender harm everyone, regardless of whether they identify as man, woman, etc. As with freida’s experience, this is presented as a tragedy, as something that will make Darwin’s life less than it otherwise could have been.
There is a lot going on in this book. In terms of the writing, Asking for It has the edge; this one is more obviously a debut effort. Don’t interpret that as a criticism, though, because I can’t decide which one I like more. You should read both. Probably not back to back, mind you, because that would be even more depressing. But Louise O’Neill is so skilled at highlighting the problems our society faces with regards to gender norms and misogyny. Only Ever Yours is a brilliant piece of science-fictional satire, from SleepSound to Keeping Up with the Carmichaels. If you are at all interested in more feminism in your fiction, you must check this out.