Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
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. . .
I wanted to love this book, and in fact there are many parts of it that I enjoyed, appreciated, and thought were very important. However, there were also things that didn’t sit right with me as I was reading it, as I finished, and those doubts continued on after I closed the book and tried to carry on with my day.
The future of our world does not look good. Girls (eves) are no longer born naturally, but genetically engineered. They are then trained in ‘school’ from the age of four to be the perfect woman – when they leave they will become one of three things, because of course women only have three uses. Companion, concubine, or chastity. Wife and mother, prostitute and pleasurer, or celibate schoolteacher. Frieda (or frieda, because women’s names are not capitalised at all) is one of the prettiest, most compliant eves in her year. So is her best friend Isabel. But the closer it gets to the ‘ceremony’, to meeting their future husbands (The Inheritants), or clients (I suppose), the more things change. The status quo is challenged, and everything starts to go wrong.
What O’Neill has done with Only Ever Yours is open up a conversation within the YA sphere, about society’s expectations of young girls, of beauty and vanity, and the sexualisation of women from a very young age. However, I feel that it doesn’t do this all in a particularly smart or interesting way. By laying it all out the way it has been, I feel O’Neill has taken the easy route. I’d have been much more interested in a critique of our society that is actually set in a familiar environment. What I’d also have liked to see more of is how the world got this way. There is little explanation of how a society that is slowly but surely working towards gender equality collapsed completely and allowed this to happen. I have seen reviews that say “it’s scary because it COULD happen”, and I disagree completely. One of the big things about this novel is that it’s supposed to be ‘eye-opening’ but these are all issues that exist in our society already, just multiplied by a thousand times. I found Only Ever Yours unrealistic and impossible. That doesn’t make it any less important as a cautionary tale, but let’s be realistic – it’s not going to happen. Yes these things happen on a smaller scale every day, should we not be criticising them in within a relevant context?
I actually didn’t really think the world building was very good. O’Neill gave herself a completely blank slate to work with and did little with it. I can see this being a stylistic choice to make the story most important and not waste words on description, but no matter the intention I found the nondescript surroundings and setting quite bland and uninspiring. Even if the school itself is supposed to be unremarkable, effort could have been made to show how that affects the eves and why it is so featureless.
Often, the criticism of vanity and society’s focus on aesthetics didn’t come through very well, and instead I got the feeling that the girls themselves were being demonised for the results of their upbringing on their personalities, as if there was any alternative. I felt myself disliking megan and co., and fought hard to keep in mind that she is a product of her surroundings. With little focus on the Father, there was no other place for reader resentment to manifest other than the less-amiable girls. I know that it was not O’Neill’s intention to blame the girls, but they came across as more accountable for their failures when it comes to friendship and solidarity amongst women than the creators of the system. I am okay with unlikable and flawed characters, but I felt that how unlikable they are contributes to what O’Neill is trying to combat – the judgement of women by those of any gender.
The ending is disappointing. I know the point of this particular ending is that there is no happy ending in this scenario, but just because it’s making a point doesn’t mean it’s a good conclusion for a novel. A reader requires closure, it doesn’t necessarily have to be happy but I’d at least have preferred the possibility that perhaps there was a point to any of it or that progress had been made in some way. I felt as though the whole novel could have been more affecting if something had come of frieda’s self-awareness, if her rule-breaking choices had come from a place of rebellion and dissent than of supposed hysteria. There was no feminist character in this book, nor any self-sacrifice that would usually make you root for a person. Having read of O’Neill’s own feminism I would have expected a more demanding main character.
All of that said, I felt myself connecting with the different characters in many ways, and I really couldn’t put it down while I was reading it. I like what this book represents, and the fact that it’s getting the conversation started, at least in the YA community. However, I just don’t think it achieved what it meant to, and didn’t live up to its potential.
I am really looking forward to see what Louise O’Neill does next, with her next novel Asking For It being published in September. I think she’s brave, and definitely my favourite kind of person, a feminist. And whatever she’ll do with her new-found YA-shaped platform is surely going to be great.
Despite my rating being only 3/5, I do think in some ways this book was important, and would recommend it to any one, if only to show the kind of issues that can be challenged in a very head-on way if a writer and publisher is willing to dare. It is clearly important to young women who read YA, openly criticising the tendencies of our society that make them feel uncomfortable and undervalued, and for that I am grateful. I’m just hoping it invites more authors to do the same, and that Asking For It is written somewhat better.
I would really like to hear what you thought of this book, please comment if you agree or disagree with me! The best part of reviewing books is that we get to talk about these things, especially the important themes.
My personal rating: 3/5. Amazon average: 4.5/5. Goodreads average: 4.03/5.
Publication Date: July 3rd 2014.
Follow the author on Twitter: @oneilllo