Only Ever Yours
by Louise O’Neill
2015 (originally published 2014) • 406 pages • Quercus
We didn’t discuss Elissa Sussman’s Stray in any great detail in my publishing program—after all, we weren’t supposed to know what the book was, just evaluate the excerpt we were given. (And definitely not start screeching its virtues to all comers. Uh, oops.) But one comment has always stuck in my craw. One of my fellow students, whose identity I will obscure to protect their innocence, wondered if feminists wouldn’t hate Stray, because it shows women in a negative light.
As a feminist who was loving it, I was aghast at the idea that feminists can only ever be satisfied with seeing women in a positive light: feminist dystopian fiction has a long and storied history. Speculative fiction’s most noble usage is to reflect our society back at us at slant angles so that we can see the truth (as the author sees it, anyway). I said my piece and we continued through the exercise.
Two years on, I shudder to think what that person would have made of Only Ever Yours, the darkest and grimmest satire I’ve come across in a long, long time. The misogynistic thinking that lies just beneath the surface of a lot of modern thinking about women is taken to its logical extreme, creating a truly horrific dystopia that is, as Ana at the Book Smugglers points out, composed entirely of misogyny. Only Ever Yours is inevitably compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s only The Handmaid’s Tale if women were reduced specifically to their sexual utility to men instead of “just” reduced to their reproductive capabilities.
Because the world of Only Ever Yours is a world where men are capable of creating life. After women stop bearing girl children as the Earth descends into environmental chaos, the misogynistic and patriarchal forces in control of what’s left of the Earth create “improved” women—the eves. (There are definite shades of Mad Max: Fury Road’s “Who killed the world?” here.) Unfortunately, no amount of genetic engineering can eliminate pesky flaws like personalities and a desire for agency, so all eves are raised in Schools, where they’re taught how to be real women. Real women, in this case, being women whose self-worth is based entirely on their looks and weight according to a complex rubric, who compete against each other for the barest scraps of dignity, and who always, always defer to men. When they graduate, they’re sorted into one of three categories—companions (wives), concubines (sex workers), or chastities (teachers).
And when they turn forty, they kill themselves.
freida, a sixteen-year-old eve, does well at the School, commonly ranking in the top ten. Number one, however, is isobel, freida’s best friend. When they begin their last year of school, however, isobel is distant and, horrifyingly, subordinate—even going so far as to gain weight. The depth of freida’s confusion and heartbreak over isobel’s behavior is only matched by her determination to keep her head above water in the constant competition that is the School and become a companion. When the Inheritants, the sons who will inherit the Earth that is left to them, arrive to choose their brides, the competition becomes suffocating.
O’Neill’s knack for the smallest, cruelest details in the construction of her cathedral of misogyny is stunning. Women’s names aren’t even capitalized. Queerness has been supposedly genetically engineered out—but queer behavior is allowed as long as it is for the sexual gratification of men. Some women are groomed from birth to be someone’s companion. The weight eves are allowed to be has a margin of error of seven pounds—cruel in the light that a normal human going about its business fluctuates five pounds in a day. Hysterical girl behavior is considered such a threat that the girls receive an hour of sensory overload to combat it. These women, these girls, are trained to compete with each other to such a degree that they are incapable of forming meaningful bonds with each other.
This, to me, is one of the most horrifying parts of O’Neill’s dystopia, and it’s not exactly hers. O’Neill and I live in a culture where we are constantly told that our friendships with other women are inferior to any potential romantic relationship with a man. (As well as a culture where my desire to marry a woman is rarely considered.) Women have told me to my face that they don’t like other women because they’re too catty. If you boil O’Neill’s dystopia down to “a world where women are encouraged to and shamed into running themselves ragged for the approval of men and then are hated for doing so,” it doesn’t sound much different from the world I live in.
But the most horrifying part of Only Ever Yours is watching freida throw herself against the bars of her cage over and over again, unable to make a dent. freida can sense that something is wrong, but she can’t fathom that the problem is the system. There are flashes of almost comprehension—freida begins to wonder if the slutshaming hurled at the eves who want to become concubines is fair. freida indulges in a rage fantasy when she realizes that the Inheritants don’t have to adhere to the same beauty standards that she does, although that rage fantasy includes fatshaming. But freida doesn’t have the resources to fight back or even understand. isobel’s deliberate weight gain is about the only thing eves can do to claim any agency over their bodies, but they have no methods to claim agency over their selves. They can’t even read.
Only Ever Yours is absolutely devastating. I couldn’t put it down; I had to suffer through it in one blow. It’s dark. It’s grim. And it’s, sadly, necessary.
I rented this book from the public library.