I picked up Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours from my TBR pile, long after I’d finished shedding tears over Asking For It. I vowed to never again read a book that I knew was thematically heavy without being in the right mindset for it. And so, I waited until a day when I was feeling good enough to sit down and begin it.
There is no denying that we live in a society that condemns the ‘PC brigade’ for requesting that others promote an absence of misogyny, misandry, racism, cultural appropriation (insofar as the inclusion of traditional cultural dress in every day wear; thus diminishing the true cultural purpose for these things, such as native American headdress, Bindis and the hijab, which all have specific purpose in other cultures). The flip side of this society is that there are a number of people who request ‘trigger warnings’ on books, with the intent to shield potential readers from mental triggers which may cause unpleasant memories to surface. For books like Asking For It and Only Ever Yours, the threats of trigger warnings may serve as censorship. The thematic associations of both of Louise O’Neill’s books are rooted in reality. They are not shock-factor riddled – each chapter, each story and each character is an accurate mirror of something that happens in the patriarchal society we exist in today.
Only Ever Yours was particularly poignant. Set in a School some time in the future, it tells the story of how natural women were genetically obsolete, and engineered women, or ‘eves’, were Designed to be perfect. The eves spend their entire lives in the School, learning how to constantly improve – and pitch themselves against each other. The aim for the eves is to become either a companion, a concubine, or a chastity. The representation of current society is evident in every page – the eves fight to be #1, the highest rated eve, or most eligible to be a companion. Only eves ranked #1-#10 may become companions to eligible men (Inheritants), and those lower ranked may become concubines. At first glance, it may seem an archaic representation of women. Surely today we live in a world where women can do whatever they want? Sadly, no. Women are still expected to marry, to become companions – whether that is with a male or a female, there is still a stigma associated with a woman approaching her 40s and not being in a settled relationship. Approaching 40 and not being in a relationship, a woman is deemed to be a hopeless case, unappealing, unattractive, ineligible – just like the chastities in Only Ever Yours. Within marriage, a woman is expected to have children, or to want them (this was demonstrated very clearly last month, when the backlash from this article lasted several days). If the woman continues to work while being married with children, she’s a bad mother. If she stays at home and doesn’t work, she’s just a housewife, not entitled to an opinion and expected to watch vapid day-time television and read magazines that tout how to get younger-looking skin. If a woman enjoys an active sex life with multiple partners, she’s condemned a whore. Don’t even get me started on the rights of sex workers, who are constantly marginalised by laws and rules that give them an unfair disadvantage, and frankly makes their work dangerous for them to carry out (A current campaign, Turn Off the Red Light, is calling for the ban of prostitution through the introduction of a law prohibiting the purchase of sex. Although the intention is to protect women from sex trafficking and explotation, it runs the risk of forcing willing sex workers who are assaulted or raped into a position where they are unable to go to any authority figure about the assault, due to the situation involving illegal purchase of sex in the first place). Becoming a concubine in OEY was shown to be a glamorous, alluring existence – at the Inheritant’s every beck and call. The true concept of sex work, whether it is prostitution or the porn industry, is that the woman is in control of her own body. She is choosing to do the work and is in control of how others view her. However, the concubines of OEY are sex objects. They are judged by the other eves, and labeled whores, or ‘Heavenly Seventy girls’ – a term which enforced the ‘them VS us’ clique-forming habits that are instilled in girls in schools across the world. Although never stated, as the book was told through freida’s eyes, readers could assume that the Heavenly Seventy girls thought anyone outside of their clique was a prude. It’s mirrored in every secondary school in the real world and has been an oxymoron highlighted since The Breakfast Club came into fruition, where Allison Reynolds plaintively laments
Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut! It’s a trap.
Not withstanding that, the question of sex is raised throughout the book as an issue that is directly mirrored in today’s society, particularly in Catholic Ireland. For anyone reading who lives outside of Ireland, almost every single primary and secondary school is part of, owned by (or partially funded in some way by) the Catholic Church. While in secondary school this may have less of an effect on learning as it does in primary school, the main implication is the level of sex education young people receive. I remember in perhaps third or fourth year sitting in a room when the head of the religion department handed out grainy black and white photos of what chlamydia looked like, and told us essentially that sex was dangerous. It was never said DON’T DO IT! but the implications we could take from the discussion was that sex was bad, sex could lead to disease, girls shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. I don’t recall anyone ever explaining how to put on a condom (it was an all-girls school so I imagine they felt there was no need to explain at the tender age of 15 or 16) or how the Pill worked, or how other forms of contraception worked. For girls, we are taught that our virginity is something that needs to be protected, shielded from the wiles of any rogue boys we were doomed to come in contacted with. On the flip side, boys weren’t so much told ‘don’t do it’ as ‘use a condom’ – the opposite of the education we received. I have no idea if the education system has improved much since I left school. I doubt it has. In OEY, frieda makes a last-ditch attempt to prove to Darwin (the #1 Inheritant
and excellent foreshadowing as the eves of creationism do not mesh well with Darwinian theory of evolution. I see what you did there, Louise. I see it.) that she is worthy of being his companion by having sex with him in a Heavenly Seventy session. It was her way of proving her worth – by giving him the only thing that she and the other eves had been taught was all they had to lose. He left her in the room where she lay, unsurprisingly heartbroken. Particularly from a Catholic standpoint, we are fed stories about the Virgin Mary and how important it is to protect something that is actually a social construct. I think a lot of girls can tell a sad story of their first sexual encounter – most girls probably didn’t have the experience they were taught to expect. I am totally against the romanticisation of virginity. Boys are not taught that girls are brought up to expect flowers and soft-lighting candles and a wonderfully special experience befitting of the expectations bestowed upon them. I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than the idea of a woman being reduced to an object, purely based on a social construct that doesn’t mean anything. We’ve laughed about it for years – it was the subject of a wailed quip from Regina George in Mean Girls; upon discovery that her boyfriend had broken up with her, Regina cried
I gave him everything. I was HALF a virgin when I met him!
It’s a funny thought, but when you look at it from the point of view of how girls are raised to view sex – it’s heartbreaking. She’s not upset because he broke up with her -she’s upset because she gave him her self-worth.
For frieda in OEY, her entire existence was contained in the fragile wrappings of her self-worth and how she conducted herself. Her life was ruined by Darwin’s admission that she had confessed her love and had sex with him before marriage. He was not at fault. She was. It’s almost a nod to the old Magdalene Laundry culture where a girl pregnant out of wedlock was at fault, was the product of shame on a family. The man in question was respected and remained unquestioned. The girl had ignored every ounce of teaching about the protection of her virginity. The same thing happened to frieda. She went against the teachings she had drilled into her night after night and day after day in the school. She was the problem. Not Darwin.
Although this was a massive aspect of the book, I chose to leave it to last. It was partially the reason I hesitated so long in picking it up. I knew a lot of the issues in the book surrounded body image. I’ve been dealing with BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder(as a facet of my other illnesses)) for years, and part of me fretted that the book would be triggering for me (it wasn’t, in the end). The eves were expected to maintain a weight of approximately 118 pounds (something I haven’t even been nearly for a long time now) as the Inheritants ‘didn’t like skinny women’. The running theme of calorie-counting, weight obsession and appearance obsession is so unbelievably true to life that it hits, hard. There is obviously an influx of people battling against bodyshaming lately, but it doesn’t stop people commenting on photos of Cheryl Fernandez Versini telling her to eat a sandwich, or others calling Jennifer Lawrence fat. We as women are constantly being targeted by advertisements for bikini bodies, ‘detox’ teas
which are just mild laxatives , home workouts, anything and everything that will help a woman ‘improve’ herself. Despite what all of these campaigns will lead you to believe, they serve only to tell a person what about themselves they should be happy with – a technique and an attitude which is ironically condemned as women are constantly accused of being vapid and self obsessed (usually by men, and by woman who go out of their way to completely reject the ‘beauty standards’ upheld by the world of which there is nothing wrong with, I am a firm believer in do whatever you want, but don’t join in by adding to the clamor of condemnation). There is nothing wrong with wanting to love the body you’re in – but OEY really dug deep into exposing just how bad the constant peltings of advertisements has an effect on eves. I would like to think of the recordings floating through the speakers in the eves’ rooms at night was a metaphor for the cacophony of voices that daily tell a woman what she should and shouldn’t look like or act like. Freida and the other eves fought with balancing weight throughout the book, while the removal of makeup was a punishment that sent the eves into a frenzy – highlighting how we as a gender are forced into believing we need makeup to look good. Again, this is not to say that makeup is bad! fashion is bad!! advertising is bad!!! but rather, when it becomes a need and not a want to look or act a certain way, there is something wrong with the way the world views women, and with the way we are told to view ourselves. The mantra offered by the chastities in the School is ‘There is always room for Improvement’, suggesting that there is absolutely no standard of universal beauty that a girl can reach whereby she will be the best she can be. There is no universal standard of beauty where one single girl will be attractive to anyone. Think of all the celebrity women in the world who are ‘icons’ of beauty that aren’t attractive to every man or woman in the world. Marilyn Monroe, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Kate Moss to name but a few – all beautiful women, but I could easily find you someone who disagrees with at least one of the women above being on that list. When we are young, the pressure to be skinny, to be beautiful, to have perfect makeup and a perfect smile and to be attractive and wonderful is immense – but nothing is more pressure than approaching middle age and the bombardment of anti-ageing creams and face-lifts and hair dyes and everything that is pushed at a woman to prevent her from appearing ‘old’. In OEY, companions were able to obtain various surgeries (as a gift to their husband) in order to preserve their beauty, until their termination date at age 40, after which an Inheritant could claim a new, younger companion.
If the last 2,205 words haven’t supported it enough, I loved Only Ever Yours. Boasting a beautifully told feminist message, with an ending that will leave you feeling like a crushed Coke can, this is a book that deserves every single award, nomination and top-of-list recommendation it has received so far. Two out of two O’Neill books that I would highly recommend landing inside every single classroom across the world.