Dystopian, young-adult and feminist literature are three of the biggest current trends in books, so a novel that sits in all three genres is bound to be a big seller. Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is exactly that. Last week, it won the first ever YA Book Prize and here’s why.
Frieda lives in a world where baby girls are not born but bred in schools. They spend their first 16 years training to be companions to men. Frieda and her classmates are about to take their final test to prove that they have achieved the ideal level of beauty required to be chosen by the sons of influential men. For the girls who don’t make the cut, life as a concubine or chastity awaits. Frieda and her best friend Isabel are among the highest ranking girls in their year and destined for companionship with the highest ranking boys of their age. However, the pressures of final year kick in and Isabel begins to gain weight, letting her rankings slip. Frieda leaves Isabel behind and joins forces with the other high-ranking girls and catches the eye of beautiful Darwin but at graduation, some dark realities materialise. Talking about her inspiration behind it, Louise said:
“When I re-read Only Ever Yours, I could see how a myriad of my life experiences had influenced the book. I was educated in a single sex convent from the age from 4 to 18 so I was very familiar with that dynamic. It was when I spent time in India in 2006 that I became aware of a gender imbalance favouring men due to a high rate of death in female infants. I read a book called May You Be the Mother of A Hundred Sons and I think that was a huge influence on me. I didn’t have the idea for the book until January 2011. I was in a Starbucks in New York reading a trashy gossip magazine that had red circles of shame drawn around cellulite or muffin tops on female celebrities. A vision flared in my mind – it was of a young girl in a bikini standing in front of a classroom of about 30 girls. An older woman was drawing around her ‘defective’ body parts with a red marker. And it came to me – a world in which women are bred for their beauty. A world in which women are unable to bear daughters naturally.”
It has been described as a cross between the Lindsay Lohan film Mean Girls and Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale and anyone who knows of these creations will notice the similiarities. Anyone vaguely well-versed in today’s pop culture will also notice numerous references to recognisable figures. Several characters in the novel are clearly based on supermodels and actresses of today. Cara has distinguishing eyebrows much like supermodel Cara Delevingne, Angelina has an enviable pout reminiscent of Angelina Jolie and queen bee Megan bears a striking resemblance to actress Megan Fox. Even Frieda herself has brown skin and long dark hair like Slumdog Millionaire actress Frieda Pinto. The boys are named after philosophers and great thinkers such as Darwin (Charles), Abraham (Lincoln) and Isaac (Newton) which illustrates how society
perceives men (strong minds) and women (beautiful faces).
Many issues are brought up in the novel, namely feminism and offers a dark but sadly realistic look at how women are typically seen. To some, it may seem an old-fashioned view to have in 2015 but we still live in a world where women are judged chiefly on their looks. Celebrity magazines and
tabloid newspapers are still ‘rating and slating’ outfits and their weight is still scrutinised. Women may be writing revolutionary books and speaking out against issues that affect them but Only Ever Yours reminds us that fundamentally, all some readers care about is what diet these women are on.
The link between social media and having unattainable goals is also addressed in Only Ever Yours. The girls are obsessed with a social network called ‘MyFace’ and use it to post mundane updates about every detail of their lives. They constantly compare each other’s photos and seethe with jealousy if one of them is looking better than they are. Sadly, this is straight from reality. These girls exist and it’s only when you realise this that the true tragedy of Only Ever Yours resonates. It is a work of fiction firmly embedded in reality.
On what’s to come from this exciting new YA author, Louise said: “My next novel is called Asking For It. It will be published by Quercus on September 3rd. It’s set in a small town in Ireland and deals with rape culture, victim blaming, and the fixation our society has on female sexuality, particularly in young girls.”