“What would you do if you failed to produce sons? Throw myself on the pyre before Termination Date so my husband can marry someone better. What would you do if a man asked you for sex when you where feeling unwell? Always be willing.”
Author: Louise O’Neill Published: 2014 Pages: 390
I picked up this book when I attended the Young Adult Literature Convention in London. Its premise was intriguing, and despite knowing that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so was the terrifying barbie doll on the front. The novel depicts a world in which women are bred in schools, training from birth how to please men and once they are old enough their fate in dependant on how well they have done this. When they graduate, the most eligible girls become “companions” to men and live with them, breeding sons until their purpose is fulfilled. If a girl fails to graduate and is not eligible to be chose as a “companion” she is destined to live a destitute and lonely life. Freida and Isabel are two of the most highly rated girls in school, obvious choices for companions, but as they ender their final year, Isabel begins to put on weight, a huge mistake in this restricted world. Freida must try to save them both from ending up as concubines, but in doing so, she begins to uncover the horrific truths of the world they live in.
Firstly, O’Neill took on a lot when writing this. It raises questions about topical issues such as female beauty standards, and in general, the effect of patriarchy on the lives of women. The problem is, she just doesn’t do it justice. The novel is written well, and she expresses herself nicely, but I spent every page becoming more and more frustrated with the lack of evolution in its plot. Far from having interesting twists and poignant remarks on what would happen if we fail to embrace a less judgemental society, the book just falls flat. O’Neill could have used Freida to showcase the mental and physical strength a young girl can summon to overcome societal pressures, but instead allows her protagonist to fall at almost every hurdle.
I know the point of the novel was to act as a warning for what could happen to our own society. But the fact of the matter is, it just doesn’t do this well enough. I never felt sympathy for the girls, despite their predicament, because I was never invested in their wellbeing enough to actually care. It doesn’t invoke enough hope to be optimistic and it doesn’t criticise our current society enough to be a condemnation.
It had so much potential to really instil a sense of hope about how we can overcome our engrained opinions about how girls should behave. But unfortunately, O’Neill only portrays the brutality of girls upon other girls and once again, a female protagonist whose main ambition is to find a man. At best, it was a bad replication of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ but without the same eloquence or impeccable style.