Only Ever Yours: Survival of the prettiest in bleak speculative tale



By Louise O'Neill

Quercus Publishing/Paperback/390 pages/$17.95/Books Kinokuniya/4/5

The young adult fiction genre is on fire and Louise O'Neill might be the hottest name on the scene.

She has had praises heaped on her debut novel, Only Ever Yours. Acclaimed writer Jeanette Winterson called it "The Handmaid's Tale for this generation".

In Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian tale of a paternalistic culture, women are viewed as objects. Only Ever Yours explores similar territory, but the culture has been contemporised to one ruled by an allegiance to social media.

Main character freida - only lower-case letters are allowed for girls' names, while men's names get an uppercase first letter, signifying gender inequality - struggles in a pressure-cooker system which pits long-limbed, smooth-skinned girls against one another in a fierce, survival race of the prettiest.

While this seems par for the course in today's Kardashian world, O'Neill turns the dial up to 11: These girls are "eves", designed to be chosen as "companions" for men based on their looks, weight and personality.

These girls are "eves", designed to be chosen as "companions" for men based on their looks, weight and personality.

Led by teachers known as "chastities", the girls are shut-ins, cocooned from the outside world with only one another and their "eFones" and " ePads" for company.

When freida's close friend isabel, ranked No. 1 among the girls, starts gaining weight and behaving strangely, the society is thrown off-balance.

"All eves are created to be perfect, but... there is always room for improvement" is one axiom they subscribe to.

There is also some social commentary about people being highly medicated, with freida always needing pills to help her sleep more soundly.

Another point of discomfort is how similar their world is to modern-day society.

The eves are ironically hyperconnected, updating one another with their latest selfies, which they post to their "MyFace" accounts, and watching familiar-sounding shows, such as The Americas-Zone's Next Top Concubine.

But while the premise is great, the plot fizzles out towards the end, building a mystery around isabel that is disappointingly predictable.

Only Ever Yours succeeds in treading that fine line between speculative fiction and cautionary tale and, in doing so, O'Neill gains the power that the eves, tragically, never had.

If you like this, read: O'Neill's latest book, Asking For It (Quercus Publishing, 2015, $24.95, Books Kinokuniya), about rape culture and victim-blaming as told from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - NOV01D'. Print Edition | Subscribe