Published by Quercus on 3rd July 2014
Genre: YA, Sci-fi, Dystopia
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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.**I received a free digital review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. This in no way affects my opinion of the book.**
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…
Warning: this book is SO DARK and deals with a LOT of triggering themes. Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, rape, homophobia, addiction, abuse, suicide... I'm probably missing something. But god, I wish everyone could read this book.
Like, you see that cover? Just look at that cover and think about it for a moment. Think about that title, that tagline, all the implications of it: "Choose a girl to own forever." Jeanette Winterson was totally right when she said, "A dark dream. A vivid nightmare." That's what this book is. I have to say: I fucking loved this book. But it was also really, really depressing.
It's probably one of the most gripping books I've read this year. The blurb makes the premise pretty clear, but here's a quick rundown. Women in the future can no longer produce female babies naturally. So girls are bred. Created. And they grow up in a female-only environment, a school where they learn from the age of four how to please men, where they need to always look their best and stay at the ideal weight. Because when they turn sixteen, their fates will be decided. There are three things they might become: a companion, a concubine, or a chastity – a teacher at the school.
Companions are perfect wives. They serve their husbands and bear them sons. Concubines are essentially prostitutes, and they serve any man who wants them sexually. This is a world where every man, married or not, participates in sexual activities with concubines. Even boys who are only twelve years old. This is a world where the concept of consent doesn't exist anymore. Women are expected to do whatever men want. Companions and concubines are terminated at the age of 40, when they are too old to be of use to the men.
This is an example of the sorts of messages that are engraved in the minds of these girls:
What do you do if you failed to produce sons? Throw myself on the pyre before my Termination Date so my husband can marry someone better. What would you do if a man asked you for sex when you were feeling unwell? Always be willing. What would you do if a man asked you to perform a sexual act you felt uncomfortable with? Always be willing.
Just let all of that sink in.
So we meet Freida at the beginning of the book. She's about to start her final year at the school. At the school, every girl is rated according to their appearance. Freida has a good chance of being chosen as a companion because she's ranked highly in her year. Her best friend, Isabel, is ranked first in the year. They used to talk about their future as companions, how they will still be friends when they leave this school. But we learn that the two girls have been drifting apart for some time now; Isabel has been distant and gaining weight and Freida doesn't know why. And as the year goes on, Freida's ranking starts to drop, and her desperation for a good future as a companion mounts ever higher.
One thing that immediately jumps out when you start reading is the fact that female names are not capitalised in the book: it's actually freida and isabel. Male names, you eventually discover, are capitalised. This was a small but remarkably telling detail, and I loved it.
I was so distressed by this book. Reading it hurt me viscerally sometimes and made me feel sick in places. It was so incredibly incisive, reflecting our own world in too many ways. The oppression of men, the way they feel so completely entitled to women's bodies, and the way these girls have internalised the vilely misogynistic attitude of the world they inhabit as they tear each other down, fake friendships and compliments for the sake of popularity, constantly criticising the appearances of others. Always judging. It explores all the confusing and harmful expectations that women are faced with, especially the angel/whore dichotomy. This book just felt so real. I felt like I knew this world intimately already. Like O'Neill took our present world and just shone a harsher light on it, until all the shadows became more sharply-defined and dramatic.
I wish we could have got a fuller sense of Freida and Isabel's friendship and the extent of their affection for each other. Because the book begins when they're already barely talking to each other, I feel like the emotional impact was lessened. We got some flashbacks of what they were like as best friends, but I never felt like I got to know that version of them, only the broken pieces.
Still, the book was absolutely excellent otherwise. It was brutal and chilling and thought-provoking, so well-written. It lingers and haunts forever afterwards. This is a story that needed to exist in this world, and I certainly hope it will be widely read.