I first learned about Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill on Twitter, when it was described as “Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale“. I love Mean Girls, and I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale yet, but I love everything Atwood writes, and I am sure her masterpiece is no exception. So I requested a review copy, and Alainna Hadjigeorgiou at Quercus books made sure I got one within the week.
Only Ever Yours is a dystopian, feminist novel. I am not shocked at all that many people have compared it to Atwood’s fiction. O’Neill herself read English at Trinity College in Dublin, admiting that “I was always drawn to the more feminist modules, taking classes such as Gender and Sexuality studies and Post-Colonial Women’s fiction” (source). The main character, freida – yes, like the painter, no, no need to use a capital letter in O’Neill’s work when referencing women – is facing her last year at an all-girls school where women are trainned for their life in the EuroZone, that is, what is left of Europe after we, lovely human beings, almost destroyed Planet Earth. But this school is different to what we understand as education nowadays. The girls are weighed-in and taken pictures of every morning. Standards must be upheld! These are the wives of the future leaders of the Euro Zone. These are the women that will give birth only to sons. These are the women that – in a survivial of the most beautiful, and patriarchal-oriented – are going to destroy each other to be chosen by the best husband.
O’Neills narrative about the struggle of these girls against the constant images they are subjected to feels painfully familiar. ‘You are never enough’, the subtext that 21st century women are constantly subjected to is turned into an overt narrative: Never thin enough, but too thin if you take it too seriously. Never enough made-up, until you go too far and look like a whore. However, there are deeper concerns in Only Ever Yours, feminist concerns that I would like readers to discover by themselves, because I found out the ridiculousness of these arguments while reading the novel, and next time those same arguments cross my mind – and they will, they always come back – I will laugh out at them and remember that constant improvement, and perfection, do not exist.