Only Ever Yours is a book that’s divided readerships. I know some people who definitely praise it as the intelligent, sharp breath of fresh, feminist fiction that YA literature needs. I’ve heard others much more wary of it – worrying that the novels harsh message might be interpreted the wrong way by younger readers, who might pick up on the “women must be perfect to please men” overtone, whilst missing the subversive intention of the author. It recently won the inaugural YA Book Prize (inaugural is an ace word, note to self – must use more often), so I thought I’d better give it a proper read. I’d started it before, but I’d let it fall by the wayside (I am prone to this. Naughty bookseller.), so I opted to persevere, and set it as my YA Book Club read to see what they thought of it…
Only Ever Yours takes place in a Dystopian society in which the world’s population has been ravaged by an unnamed disaster. Women stop being able to become pregnant with girls, threatening the complete extinction of the Human Race until the Eve project is founded. The Eves are genetically engineered women, grown in labs and raised in schools across the world to fulfill the needs of men – to provide wives and mothers for the rest of the world. Frieda, the book’s protagonist is one such Eve – in a school where all her sisters are sculpted at the genetic level to be perfect, and trained from birth to understand that beauty is their value. Bombarded with what a man needs a woman to be every single day of their lives, and constantly surrounded by ratings on the prettiest girls in their class, the Eves are trained to starve themselves and behave as sweetly and perfectly as possible to please their future husbands. After all, an Eve who isn’t chosen by a man becomes a concubine – not something Frieda plans on degrading herself by allowing to happen. She may not be the highest ranked girl in the year, but she’s in the top ten, and that means she stands a good chance of becoming the dutiful wife of someone powerful in the world outside. She diets and starves, she picks striking outfits, and she jostles with the girls around her in an all-or-nothing struggle to be seen as worthy enough of a good man. Once upon a time, Frieda and her best friend Isabel planned on becoming mothers and wives together, but now in their final year all Eve friendships are off – scheming, backstabbing techniques hidden behind perfect makeup and a warm giggle rule the school. The rest of their lives are ahead of them, and it’s a struggle to be perfect enough to come out on top.
Oh wow. Okay, honestly I can’t say how I sit with Only Ever Yours. Much like Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary, I can’t deny that this is a powerful, explosive novel… But did I enjoy it? Enjoy is not the right word at all.
Louise’s characters are a conundrum. It’s easy to see these girls as bitchy, unlikable or just plain messed up, but as a reader you have to remember that each one of them is a product of her environment. Frieda is often weak, doing the wrong thing to stay on the good side of the number one beauty, Megan, and it’s easy from the outside to judge her for that, but as the book unfolds, and Frieda begins to unravel with it, it’s easy to see how desperate she is for acceptance. After a life of being told that beauty is the sole value in life, it’s impossible for the Eves to not seek out acceptance and assurance from others who are considered attractive. They’re messy, difficult individuals with complex motives, and that lends the story a constant lilting sense of unease. Frieda’s slow descent into madness, as her desperation begins to unravel her world, is when the book really started to shine for me. The way O’Neill writes her slurring speech, her sleep-deprived hallucinations and her all-or-nothing actions really lend pace to the way the plot is unveiled, as well as creating a labyrinthine feel of distrust. Isabel’s desperate attempts to control her own body through food (“It is my body anyway. Isn’t it?”) is heartbreakingly powerful and defiant. Isabel I can’t praise highly enough, in fact, as a character that kept the moral grounds of the book constantly shifting.
The themes in Only Ever Yours are anything but subtle – it’s a sledgehammer to the stomach of patriarchal society. At first, I really did struggle to get into the book. I felt like the message was overpowering the story and narrative, that O’Neill’s characters were overshadowed by a bombardment of the world that they lived in. But then I took a step back and remembered that I have never been a teenage girl (despite what the other kids at school told me) – I’m experiencing this pressure from the outside, and I have no idea how overwhelming the demand is on young women to be perfect and beautiful, to act in a certain way because it’s what men want – so I’m not the right person to say that the feeling comes on too strong. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because about 200 pages into Only Ever Yours, the plot suddenly explodes through the grey dystopian landscape, a freight train of raw emotional power that rips through the second half of the book and leaves only devastation and shock in its wake. It’s a bleak, harrowing and desperate second half that swirls with madness and energy. I was a little concerned, as others had been, that the themes of eating disorders and social pressures on girls would be potentially damaging to teenage readers, but the wonderful, intelligent and sharp girls from my club picked up on the subversive use of these topics immediately, and praised the book as absolutely on point. I think a lot of adults don’t give teenagers the credit they deserve. That being said, there’s definitely some strong, mature ideas explored in Only Ever Yours, I would recommend doing some research before passing it on.
O’Neill cleverly uses a lack of capitalization for the names of her Eves in the book, which takes some getting used to at first (or I’m dumb, maybe), but which creates the uncomfortable feeling that none of the girls are anything more than a product to be sold to the men. Her writing style is sharp and psychological, though I found it a little descriptive for my tastes, but as I’ve already said, it all lets up as the book gains momentum in the closing half. I can’t wait to see how her intelligent, strident style develops in her next title, Asking For It, which will be examining sexual assault and victim blaming.
Only Ever Yours is an important novel. I can’t in anyway deny that. It deals with topics and themes that are woefully ignored in YA, and it should be read not just by girls, but by boys as well. It broke me with the unrelentingly unforgiving back end that it rains down on readers, and I don’t think it’ll be for everyone… But I’d rather live in a world with writers talking about these issues, holding them up to society and exposing them for the evils that they are, than live in a world without them.
Yikes. I need something uplifting to read next, for sure.
P.S. Only Ever Yours deals with Eating Disorders and Self-Harm/Suicidal Tendencies, so I’m slapping a MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING on it, as well as recommending it for older teens. If in doubt, give it a read yourself first, or ask in the comments (or @ShinraAlpha on Twitter).