Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O'Neill

Following the death of the ‘Old World’ due to rising sea levels and the resulting loss of land, society has rebuilt itself, dividing into ‘Zones’ ruled over by the Father. All naturally occurring citizens of Zones are men and boys- the women, or eves as they are now known, are bred and reared in a sinister and decaying school, before being divided at the age of 17 into three factions; the companions, prized ‘wives, but not quite’ chosen by the men, the concubines, for entertainment and pleasure, or the chastities, the teachers that rear the next generation of eves.

Combining the super-patriarchy emancipation of The Handmaid’s Tale with the Social Media justification fest of The Circle and the appearance based hierarchy of the Uglies series, Only Ever Yours is a pretty convincing, eerily familiar version of what’s to come. Here we see genetically engineered girls of the future bickering and backstabbing behind a fake smile, ruthlessly clawing their way to the top of the rankings by whatever means necessary in order to be at the top of the social pile.

freida, the narrator of the story is a 16th year eve, designed to the highest standards of beauty but told from her design date that there is room for Improvement. Starvation diets, endless hairstyles and wardrobe changes, manicures and gym sessions; a good eve exhibits self-control. They’re dosed up on sleep medication, have their weight controlled by kcal blockers and are kept under the watchful eyes of the chastities. The eves are told that thinking makes them ugly, that prettiness is practically next to godliness and being pleasant, willing and passive and above all desirable is the only thing that matters. The eves are publicly ranked online in order of beauty and behaviour and their only long term purpose is to produce sons and make their husbands happy, before being terminated at 40.

frieda has recently and inexplicably been dumped by her one true friend, the previously loyal, previously leader-board topping isabel. We never find out a huge amount about isabel, other than she has changed a lot over the last year, becoming withdrawn and opening herself up to ridicule and ruthless harassment from the other eves. Inseparable since childhood, frieda is hurt by the distance isabel suddenly places between them and out of loneliness and desperation, she throws herself into unwise and dangerous friendships with the other alpha girls, the top ten eves, including the queen bee and #1 ranking megan.

The School is a highly-pressurised hotbed of resentment, psychological torture and cloak and dagger social sabotage. Classes are no better; the eves take a weekly foto for their online rankings, parade their tanned limbs and tight torsos for each other’s scrutiny and are subjected to ruthless public comparisons between each other in class. The eves are encouraged to point out each other’s flaws and make suggestions for Improvement. The book really casts light on the feigned behaviour and the predatory instincts of the schoolyard; the constant “I don’t want to be judgemental but she’s really fat/ugly/pale etc”.

I really liked the ideas at the heart of this book- the power-hungry girls who will feign concern, encouragement and friendship one moment and then back-stab, twist the knife and post a video of it online. It caricatures an appearance-obsessed society that needs constant online attention to validate one’s existence. In many ways it’s an absolutely razor sharp satire of our modern obsessions with perfection, celebrities, online ego stroking and humble bragging. Any reader who has ever been to a school will identify with the social politics, the underhanded efforts to rise in the esteem of the big social players. Starting rumours, inviting confidences, fishing for secrets. Using information as currency. It’s done well, it really is. megan is like Regina George to the power of a trillion and she’s thrillingly evil, but she’s acting exactly how she has been conditioned. She’s either playing the game incredibly well or she really believes in the values of her society.

As sharp and as witty as the book’s message is, I found myself getting quite restless towards the third act. The Inheritants (the sons from the Eurozone) have come to sample and examine the eves that that they are to choose from…it goes on for a while- frieda seems to have a connection with the alpha male Darwin, son of one of the Euro-Zone’s most powerful men. As their relationship peaks, it’s not hard to guess where it’s going. Once it had dawned on me what lay ahead for her, I really wanted frieda to do something outrageous and to make some sort of active stand against her world; she’s proven herself to be defective in the eyes of society and I would've liked to have seen her fight back against that society more, rather than concede to it. She’s shown she’s no conformist, so why the change? The difference that she has is accidental and I wanted her to embrace her malfunction. I guess I found freida quite frustrating; she knew that her life was a game and she couldn't really decide if she wanted to play or not. I found her lack of conviction a bit disappointing. Maybe I'm too used to protagonists inciting a rebellion- so perhaps the ending was too subtle. It just seemed like there should have been more to the story.

Only Ever Yours is definitely a thought provoking book, certainly one to seek out if you enjoyed the Uglies Trilogy and the questions that raises about appearances and social worth. It’s like a modernisation of Stepford Wives, with a bit of Brave New World with the technological excess of the 21st century factored in. A good read, even if the pace is slightly off.

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