Only Ever Yours: Disturbing dystopia with a feminist twist

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOnly Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill YA science fiction book reviewsOnly Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Imagine a world where women are not born but created. ‘eves’ exist purely to become the perfect companions of men. They are raised in The School by a group of women called chastities, where they can take one of three routes: become a companion (the perfect Stepford wife), a concubine (existing solely for the extra-marital pleasures of men) or a chastity.

Only Ever Yours follows the story of sixteen-year-old freida (and note the lower case; only men are referred to with capital letters). She has spent twelve long years being ranked against her classmates — fellow eves — not for her grades (eves can’t read) but for her beauty. freida has gone to bed hungry every night, eaten kcal blockers after every meal, even taken pills to make her throw up after she’s over-indulged. All of it has been in preparation for ‘The Ceremony,’ where the eves will either be chosen to be a man’s companion, or become a concubine or chastity.

freida’s best friend isabel has been ranked the #1 eve for as long as any of the girls can remember. When isabel suddenly goes off the rails (aka puts weight on), freida is torn between supporting her friend and sharing the disgust for her that the other eves feel. Cue megan: ruthless mega-bitch who manipulates her fellow eves and claws her way to the #1 ranked spot. No longer protected by the friendship of the #1 eve, freida must face the ruthless world of megan and her clone eves alone.

Louise O’Neill’s debut is both witty and disturbing. Like all the best dystopias, it portrayed a warped mirror-world of our own. The book is first and foremost a satire about women’s place in society: how they look, how they behave. They’re encouraged to watch trashy TV shows such as Chilling with the Carmichaels and America-Zone’s Next Top Concubine. The eves all use social media platform ‘MyFace’ (see what she did there?) to relentlessly upload pictures and statuses of their day-to-day life. The eves are constantly rating and ranking thousands and thousands of pictures of themselves. Though O’Neill often writes with a catty, tongue-in-cheek kind of humour (“Do you know what forty looks like? Have you looked at chastity-bernadette lately?”), when you realise how closely her world mirrors our own, it’s an uncomfortable wake-up call.

One minor criticism of the book would be that the character of isabel doesn’t really go anywhere. She’s introduced to the story very early on with an implication that she’ll have the weight of a major character. Not so. What could’ve been a really gripping exploration of the relationship between freida and isabel (the LGBT community is considered ‘aberrant’ and dealt with accordingly) is never really fleshed out. isabel just ends up being a bit of a 2D version of what could’ve been a gripping subplot.

The plot also tends to be a bit cyclical. I get that this reflects the endless cycle of being beat down as a woman in O’Neill’s futuristic society, but sometimes the feeling that progress wasn’t being made — old plotlines beings recycled again and again — could get a little frustrating.

In the highly over-saturated dystopia market, Only Ever Yours is actually quite refreshing. There’s no real sense of a personal struggle for freedom — freida has been beat down her whole life, and it’s all she can do to sink or swim. She’s not trying to change the world, to throw over an oppressive government, to (quite literally) stick it to the man. It’s all the more believable because freida falters and makes the wrong choices, all the while leading to an inevitable ending that will leave you feeling disturbed for days.

May 12, 2015. Where women are created for the pleasure of men, beauty is the first duty of every girl. In Louise O’Neill’s world of Only Every Yours women are no longer born naturally, girls (called “eves”) are raised in Schools and trained in the arts of pleasing men until they come of age. Freida and Isabel are best friends. Now, aged sixteen and in their final year, they expect to be selected as companions — wives to powerful men. All they have to do is ensure they stay in the top ten beautiful girls in their year. The alternatives — life as a concubine, or a chastity (teaching endless generations of girls) — are too horrible to contemplate. But as the intensity of final year takes hold, the pressure to be perfect mounts. Isabel starts to self-destruct, putting her beauty — her only asset — in peril. 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.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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7 comments

  1. The concept — and the satire — sound wonderful but this idea disturbs me because it’s just too close to reality. Of course that’s her point, but… eeww! Just don’t have a strong enough stomach this early on a Monday morning to contemplate this world

    • I know what you mean! And it does certainly get dark in places. But at the same time it makes you realise how ridiculous / vapid some of society’s fixations are, which is refreshing (if you ignore the depressing parts)

  2. My stomach twisted while reading your review. I guess Marion and I had the same reaction. Part of me wants to read this, but part of me definitely doesn’t. It sounds like a world I don’t want to spend any time in.

  3. This sounds so compelling and icky. I’m definitely adding this one to my list. Thanks, Rachael!

    • Sooooo……. “compelling and icky” is your criteria for a must-read? I find vomit “compelling and icky” and vomit is something I usually try to avoid.

  4. Yeah… I think I would have to be in the right head-space for this one. So, great review, Rachael! You’ve definitely got us thinking.

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