This book is very difficult to rate and review. It is not an enjoyable read - in some ways I actually hated it. But, at the same time that I was reading it and hating it, I was flicking screens as quickly as possible to get to the next page.
There are obvious comparisons to be made to Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. It also owes a great deal to the current infatuation (arguably over-infatuation) that publishers have with YA dystopians in which misogyny is the central focus of the world-building. I've said before that I'm tired of this type of dystopian, and I stand by that statement. This book is the clearest and truest example of that type of book - there is no world-building outside of the misogynistic premise.
In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful.
For the girls left behind, the future – as a concubine or a teacher – is grim.
Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions – they are among the most highly rated girls in their year.
But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight. . .
And then, into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.
Freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known. . .
This book is set entirely in the School where frieda (and the girl's names are always lowercase, a signifier of their lack of status and/or agency) lives in preparation for The Ceremony, which is where she will be told which "third" she is to be in: companion (wife of one of the eligible males), concubine (sex toy for any of the eligible males) or chastity (one of the women who remains in the school to "teach" the younger students). Girls have no mothers nor fathers - only male babies are born (more on this in a moment), eves - the females - are produced in a laboratory with various combinations of skin color, eye color and hair color.
There is an intense sense of claustrophobia reading this book - we never leave the school and all information about the outside world is filtered through either the chastities (who are almost universally cruel and unpleasant) or the young men who arrive in the second half of the book to choose their companion. The girls are utterly uneducated, they cannot read and do not even know what a number is. They spend time on MyFace, obsessively checking their community rankings, which are based on their weight and superficial prettiness. Their lives are completely regimented. They lack all agency and have one personality between all of them: viciously competitive.
The world-building itself is pretty much completely incomprehensible. On the one hand, this choice can be defended because the narrative frame (frieda) is so sheltered from all contact with the outside world that she has no idea how the world outside of the school works (in fact, it is unclear if she has ever even been outside). On the other hand, it is hard to wrap my mind around this world as something that could exist under the right circumstances when it is so incomprehensible. We are told some very limited facts about climate change and population die-off as a result of the loss of massive amounts of land mass due to rising seas. There's something in there about all of the female babies dying, although there's no explanation of how or why this happened, which necessitates producing girls in a laboratory as commodities. There are different "zones," which seem to correspond generally to geographic areas like Europe and the U.S. And, finally, the number of eligible males in frieda's year is disconcertingly low (10) and the number of girls "created" for their cohort is always 3x the number of possible mates, so there are a total of 30.
This was the hardest part of the book for me. I get it that using a larger number would make the story unwieldy. But it is impossible for me to wrap my mind around the idea that the number of eligible males in a geographic area for a single year would be 10. That is such a small number that, when combined with the technology available to the eves, I just can't make it work.
One way to look at it would be to look at it as a parable of what the world might look like if one-half of humanity loses her humanity. And it is an ugly world - not simply because of the way the eves are treated, which is horrifying in its own right, but because of the commodification of children and marriage. It is a loveless, joyless place where only sexualized attractiveness exists. There are inexplicably no animals in this world, either, no nurturing, no sense of the value of humanity that comes from valuing humanness as an end, not just as a means to reproduction and sexual gratification. It is extreme. Even the males, who are ostensibly pampered, have more agency than the girls, but they, themselves are trapped in the profession/social rank of their father, and their mothers are terminated at age 40. There can be little - if any - affection for any of the children being raised in this world.
It's interesting that, unlike the Handmaid's Tale, O'Neill's world doesn't have religious underpinnings. There are no religious beliefs at all, no sense of mystery or wonder. No art, no imagination, no beauty.
And this is where O'Neill lost me. In making her world so extreme, so endlessly dreary and superficial, I can't imagine that such a world could actually exist. It is so empty, so clinical, so bereft of all of the things that human beings crave: warmth, connection, love, story, nature, that the only possible response to such a world would be mass suicide and not just by the girls.
This book is well-constructed and well-done, but it is so unrelentingly horrifying and dismal that I can't say I liked or enjoyed it and I don't particularly recommend it except for the most avid fans of the genre.
Edited: Upon further reflection, I decided to downgrade my rating by a star.