Only Ever Yours, Louise O’Neill

freida and isabel have been best friends their whole lives.
Now, aged sixteen and in their final year at the School, they expect to be selected as companions – wives to wealthy and powerful men. The alternative – life as a concubine – is too horrible to contemplate.
But as the intensity of the final year takes hold, the pressure to remain perfect becomes almost unbearable. isabel starts to self-destruct, putting her beauty – her only asset – in peril.
And then, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.
freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the best friend, the only love, she has ever known…

I’ve run out of book challenge categories to easily fit things into, but I just finished this. It’s creepy as hell, and just close enough to believable to make it incredibly unsettling. Designed to repopulate the earth with Sons and please Men, women are disposable – and, indeed, disposed of, once they get too old. “There is always room for improvement”. In this post-apocalyptic world – which we hear little about, owing to freida’s limited knowledge – women are so unimportant that their names are not capitalised, their desires and opinions irrelevant and discouraged, to the extent of their very genes being altered. The eves – designed, not born, since only male children are born now, and only the most desirable women are wanted to bear them – are in School from the age of four, but taught nothing beyond being pleasing to Men: the mentions of children that young wearing makeup and worrying about their weight was chilling, as is the systemic abuse of the girls, by each other, by the School and by outside parties, and the normalisation of such abuse. I would call it victim-blaming, but the eves are simply not seen as victims at all. It is horrific. I found it very interesting how the eves are constantly played off against one another, encouraged to compare themselves and also to “offer” opinions, and to form friendships only on the most superficial level.

What I took from it, aside from horror, was the way choice is portrayed. In the Nutrition Centre, the eves can take food from the “fat girl buffet”, but always – unless they then go to the toilets right afterwards – choose the “healthy” options. They choose their clothes, but from the outfits presented to them each morning. Some girls choose to try to be chosen as concubines, but are also the girls who are unlikely to be chosen as companions. Everything is pre-approved, but presented as a choice. This is true of so much in our society, and choice is so often presented as though our decisions are not informed by expectations and social pressures. The idea of choice feminism – that a decision a woman makes is inherently feminist – is a tricky one, because while any element of choice is essentially positive, it does not mean that the options are all good. Choosing the best of a bad lot of options does not mean that the choice would have been made freely, had other options been available. A woman choosing to marry the man who raped her, for example, rather than “her whole life [be] ruined” is not making a free choice. In the narrower context of beauty, as is most obviously covered in Only Ever Yours, many women choose to wear make up, as many don’t, but there are consequences for all in a way that simply don’t apply to men.

This is an interesting novel, and I’m really looking forward to reading Asking For It now (just as soon as the person who’s reading it brings it back to the library!).

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