Only Ever Yours does just that and manages to show a truly chilling version of an all-too-plausible future and it’s a future that you can see starting right now as we speak, in those crappy magazines you see where there’s a big Circle Of Shame around a celeb’s slightly-dimply thighs, in size-zero models, in the majority of women on TV being gradually phased out once they hit forty, in rape culture, victim-blaming, glass ceilings and a billion other little things that make women and girls realise that no matter how much we contribute, we’re still going to be judged primarily on our looks and shagability.
The premise is that in the future, global warming and the rise of the sea has forced a much-reduced humanity onto a restricted landmass. Girls are now bred in labs and raised in convent-type institutions for the young generation of men who are seeking wives to bear them sons and concubines to give them a good time. The girls are ranked according to their looks and size. Eating disorders are encouraged and the girls judge each other constantly.
Within this nightmare, frieda and isabel (female names are not capitalised to show their inferiority) are waiting for the chance to be selected. The pressure is getting to isabel, and she starts to sabotage her looks, thereby jeopardizing her future by damaging the only asset she has.
For me, the message that this book is trying to get across and the writing style were five stars. The plot and characterisation were three star, so I’ve rounded my rating out at four stars overall.
So firstly the message. It’s powerful and raw. Only Ever Yours is a feminist satire and portrays a world where women are nothing more than sex objects. It’s as creepy as hell, because O’Neill highlights many things we take for granted and puts a pin in them, showing how they all contribute to a society where women are subjugated. It’s like she’s saying, ‘Here’s a terrifying future. And here’s how the things that make that future so terrifying ARE ALREADY HERE.’
Just when you think things can’t get any worse, O’Neill casually drops in another brutal scene. But the thing is, the brutality comes from it’s believability. I can totally see a society emerging where girls live their entire lives just worrying about their own looks in order to please men, judging each other’s looks and updating their statuses on social media. Brrrrr. Chilling.
I’ve already said that the plot and characterisation were three stars. When you show women as being seeded in a laboratory and raised in a cloistered community by nuns, where they’re not allowed to read, where the only aspiration they have is to please men, where they are encouraged to think only of their looks, well then, you’re going to come out with some very shallow, vapid characters. And because their interactions with the outside world are so limited, they have no opportunity to grow or develop. The little amount of personality the girls have is explored well, and a lot of emphasis is placed on the horrors of living in a society where a woman’s only asset is her looks, but because they are all so limited as people, they don’t make terribly interesting characters.
When I read, I want strong female characters. Ones who stick two fingers up to The Man (or The Woman) and say ‘Bollocks to you.’ Strong female characters make my inner Reading Beast growl.
There were no strong female characters in this book.
And I get why there weren’t. I really do. But it still made my Reading Beast pout.
Similarly, the plot. freida and the other girls are never allowed outside of the school. The only interactions they have are with each other and with the chastities, and to a limited extent, with the Inheritants they have been designed to service. Their days revolve around looking after their appearances, judging other girls on their appearances, and learning how to please men, so while this makes for very uncomfortable reading (again, because it’s so believable) it doesn’t provide much opportunity to deepen the plot or provide twists and turns.
I just want to stress that the lack of character development and lack of depth to the plot aren’t really the author’s fault. I really got the feeling that she was a good writer. It’s just that in choosing this particular scenario for her novel, she painted (wrote) herself into a corner and there was nothing more she could have done with her plotline or her characters.
What I didn’t get, though, (and this may just have been me) is exactly why women were phased out in the first place. The author explains (briefly) that boys were valued higher than girls, but why? Sorry boys, but it’s the digital age: we girls no longer need you for clubbing dinner on the head and dragging it back to our cave. Literally all we’re keeping you around for these days is your sperm. That’s it. And in the event of a global catastrophe where one sex is going to be prized higher than the other from a survival-of-the-species perspective, girls are going to win. We just are. It’s got to be easier to create fake sperm than it is to create a fake egg and uterus.
And who’s to say one sex has to disappear in any case? I am absolutely not disputing that sexism, both visible and invisible, is bloody rife in our society and that attitudes need to change, but I also genuinely think that in the event of an extinction-level event such as the one O’Neill describes, humanity would band together, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or whatever.
I dunno. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist. Maybe this wasn’t the point of the book. In fact, I know it wasn’t the point of the book. The point of the book is to show how easily the current obsession with judging women on their appearance could escalate into this nightmare. But still. If you’re going to show me a dystopia, I want back story and I want to believe it.
Despite this, Only Ever Yours is still a four-star book and definitely worth a read. I understand that O’Neill has recently brought out another book that deals with rape and the culture of victim-blaming. I’m definitely going to read it. I bet she’s got LOADS to say on that topic!