This book is brutal.
Like, punch in the gut, slap round the face, break your heart brutal. And I could not stop reading it.
Set in a dystopian future (I love me a good dystopian future), Only Ever Yours follows frieda, the sixteen-year -old protaganist as she navigates her final year at School in preparation for The Ceremony. frieda, being a girl (or ‘eve’, a genetically designed and engineered girl, as all girls in the world now are), doesn’t rate a proper noun for her name – no capital letters for girls – nor does she learn anything actually, y’know, educational at school. She can’t really read, and doesn’t know what math is, and has no way of finding out what goes on outside the lockdown of her environment. Instead, School is to prepare her and the other girls in her year for her future role in society – as a chastity, one of the teachers or otherwise functional drudges; a concubine, sexually available for any and all men; or a companion, a wife and bearer of sons for one of the young men for whom they were designed. All roles have an expiry date – women literally are killed when they are passed the age of usefulness or attractiveness, and the competition is fierce for the desired position.
I saw some reviews on Goodreads which were pretty negative about this; people criticised it as essentially retelling The Handmaid’s Tale, or as being unbelievable. As to the first – there are obvious comparisons to Atwood’s work, for sure, but the main difference for me was the emphasis on brainwashing. There’s an undercurrent of rebellion and subversion in The Handmaid’s Tale that just doesn’t really appear in Only Ever Yours; the eves are brought into the school at 4 years old, and because they never know anything different, they are fully subjugated and complicit in their own oppression. This is actively encouraged, even – lessons at The School include ‘Comparison Hour’, when two girls have to stand in front of their class while anonymised critiques are thrown at them (comments section anywhere on the internet, anyone?). It’s a subtle and interesting difference, and one which quite frankly broke my heart. The comments on today’s society, and the way women can tear each other down are hard to miss – freida is called out for not having the right kind of figure just as women are called out for not having the right kind of feminism… or figure… or hair… or opinion… or work life balance… I could go on but I won’t because I don’t want to cry. Again.
As to the world not being a believable one – well, I guess this a matter of personal taste, but for me, the world was terrifyingly believable. It’s an extreme, for sure – you could call it satire (if it was funny), or maybe absurdism, but essentially what O’Neill has done is taken the patriarchy of the Western world today and followed it to the nth degree. Women have only three possible roles, and are disposed of when they cannot fulfil one of these. Women are designed to meet the needs and desires of men, and actively taught that this is what they are for and where their value lies. Women are not considered worthy of education – in fact, an intelligent woman is not only unattractive, she is dangerous and vilified by other women and men alike. Fat is the ultimate enemy, and less-than-perfect make up is a failing grade. Women are turned against each other to destroy any potential sisterhood or cooperation, and – crucially – have no sexuality or desire of their own. It is a crime to tell a man you love him before you are married – because the man knows better than you what is good for you. Even those girls who choose (or are chosen to be) concubines have no real sexuality or desire of their own; they exists merely as living breathing sex dolls. Homosexuality is the highest of taboos for both genders, but more so for women (to the point that the scientists have attempted to genetically engineer lesbianism out of all eves). The society has the technology and expertise to genetically design female babies (after the demise of the world as we know it included a development the means it is now impossible for women to carry female embryos to term) – but this technology is not applied to fixing these reproduction problems.
One reviewer I read had a problem with this last detail, seeing it as a logical flaw in the world… but to me, this is just another brick in the painful, absurdist, heartbreaking wall. (Male contraceptive pill, anyone? No? Hmm…).
Again, I could go on but I won’t. As a reading experience, Only Ever Yours was gripping – I finished it in one day – and as I said, completely brutal.
No. Punches. Pulled.
I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it… but I will read it again. And I will recommend it to anyone and everyone. And I will continue being a loud proud feminist.