Only Ever Yours
by Louise O’Neill
Publication Date: July 3, 2014
Obtained Via: Bought
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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.
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 kept seeing Only Ever Yours compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is why I picked it up. While the worlds and stories themselves are quite different, I understand the comparison since both books tackle similar themes and issues. Because the two books were being compared so much, I actually read them back-to-back, which was a really great reading experience that I’d recommend, though The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely the better of the two in my opinion.
The plot of Only Ever Yours is deceptively simple. This is a world where girls are made, not born, and so they must be useful to the men in some capacity. The girls train together at a school knowing that when they reach their final year, some girls will become companions(wives of the men), some will become concubines(for the men’s desire), and perhaps one or two will become teachers who train the next generation of girls for the same purposes. The girls have no individual worth of their own. They call each other by name(and their names are never capitalized), but everyone else calls them by an ordered number. Main character and narrator freida is in her final year of the school, awaiting the men’s arrival, and so the readers get a first hand look at the world through her point of view.
While everything about Only Ever Yours is horrifying, the bulk of the story is a bit slow. A good first half of the book is spent in freida’s day-to-day life, including freida wondering about what’s going on with former friend isabel, how to regain a high ranking in her class’ social status, and the classes the girls attend. Just because it’s slow-moving doesn’t mean the book doesn’t deal with real issues, though. So much of Only Ever Yours is basically taking issues that affect girls today–girl on girl hate, eating disorders, obsession over looking perfect–magnifying these issues in a society that contributes overtly to these issues, and then unpacking them. It’s not hard to see how our current culture is magnified in this book. And this book explores all of them, from eating disorders to why girls so often turn on each other. It’s hard to read, but it’s a book that would start discussion easily.
Once the men arrive at the school, the plot starts moving more. It’s heartbreaking to read how the girls are groomed to base everything upon what the men want. These girls *DO* have personalities and thoughts of their own, but they are trained to stamp them down immediately and to never think. Being “academic” is one of the highest insults, as is being “fat”(and being fat is anything over 118 pounds). The girls are catty and mean to each other, which is generally something I hate in books, but in Only Ever Yours it made perfect sense. At times I wanted to hate them all, but I just couldn’t, as their survival often depended upon doing these things.
While Only Ever Yours is set in a dystopia, it doesn’t follow the same course of many of the more popular YA dystopias of the last few years. freida’s trying to survive in the system, not overthrow it. Her society has groomed her so well that such a task would be insurmountable to her in the first place. This is where I think The Handmaid’s Tale comparison is the most apt, because much like that book, freida is just trying to make the best of her terrible situation(even if she doesn’t quite grasp how terrible it is, as it’s all she’s ever known). It’s an exploration of the world, not a destruction of it. The reader can unravel this society and figure out what makes it tick, but freida can’t.
On the whole, this is definitely a book I know I’ll be recommending to people in the future. It’s definitely graphic at times and it’s not a book for everyone. This book does address fairly head-on the issues of sexual consent in this world and there are fairly explicit scenes of sexual activity, as well as many characters with eating disorders(which may be triggering for some). I will also warn that because the book is from freida’s point of view, the world-building is fairly sparse in that the reader only gets to know as much about the world as freida knows, and since she spent her whole life in the school, it’s not a comprehensive picture. That didn’t bother me, but it might some people. I do wish freida’s sleep disorder had been addressed more. That issue aside, Only Ever Yours is a brutal, thought-provoking book.
This book is horrifying for sure, but it’s also a great exploration of many issues that affect our society today. I’m pretty sure freida’s story will stay with me for a long time. 4/5 cupcakes.