I have been desperate to read Asking For It by Louise O’Neill for a long time, but unfortunately it’s currently £8.99 (ON KINDLE AS WELL?!!) on Amazon, and I just can’t afford that right now. Maybe for my holiday. So when Only Ever Yours was down to 99p, I took advantage of having at least one Louise O’Neill book in my library.
The book is described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls. Confession, I’ve not actually read The Handmaid’s Tale, but I know it’s a dystopian fiction. Mean Girls, however, I know well.
O’Neill’s novel is set in a near-future society in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful. For the girls left behind, they are left as concubines or chastities (teachers, with bald heads).
frieda and isabel (without capitalisation, because women are not even worth that much) have always been highly ranked, but when their final school year starts and isabel begins to spiral and gain weight, frieda is left with no-one to turn to and a desperation to become a companion that supersedes everything else, even her longest friendship.
It’s an interesting novel and highly disturbing, right from the outset. The idea of a school where girls are programmed to rate each other and focus only on their looks, surrounded by bald-headed teachers who tell them that they must always be happy and never be fat is frankly disconcerting. Then, once you get involved with frieda and her story and life, her own personal downward spiral is haunting and terrifying.
I don’t think I have ever felt more sorry for a character than frieda and, though I knew it unlikely, I was so desperate for her to get her happy ending because reading her unravelling was just so painful. I suppose this reflects O’Neill’s prowess as a writer.
Meanwhile, isabel is repeatedly noted as ‘special’ – she doesn’t have a number like the other ‘eves’ and is excused things that the other eves would never be permitted to do. Perhaps her mystery is one of the most compelling, yet her ending is the most rushed.
The divide between the sexes is highlighted even further by their names: the girls are all named after great beauties of our day – frieda (Pinto), isabel (Lucas), megan (I can only assume Fox?) and cara (Delevingne?), whilst their future husbands are named after great thinkers, the highest ranked being (of course), Darwin.
It is such a shocking and disconcerting novel, far more disturbing than other dystopian novels of our time, that made me feel really, truly uncomfortable. However, for me, the ending needed a little more clarity and resolution. I suppose maybe I wanted more for freida (which for her story was not possible) but as a protagonist, I felt she needed a more satisfactory (if not pleasant) ending.
It’s a sickening book, let’s be honest here, but it is fantastically written and extremely compelling. It’s impossible to like because it’s so intolerable to read and I felt uncomfortable for at least the last third of the novel. It’s terribly bleak speculative fiction of what our society could become if we allow it to progress in the way we are: with such focus on looks and perfection, are we girls looking forward to a life where we can only be satisfactory as companions or concubines?
Only Ever Yours is published by riverrun.