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Book Review: Only Ever Yours

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Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Where women are created for the pleasure of men, beaOnly Ever Yoursuty 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.

This is absolutely a recommended read. I say that up front because talking about it might be frightening. I’ve read a lot of YA. I was reading it before it was a genre, or a marketing position. And I’ve continued reading some of the best and most popular examples of the coalescing form.

Only Ever Yours is more like those earlier titles now subsumed under the Young Adult umbrella. It’s a frank exploration of the life and experience of a teen coming of age in a speculative environment. But it lacks the expected love triangle, the organized and triumphant rebellion, the blueprint for a better way which is just our way really.

Instead, the setting is our way extrapolated out maybe one or two standard deviations. Humanity experienced a crisis that lead to a reorganization of society. That reorganization was strictly patriarchal. Women are grown in batches, raised from toddlers in a hall of mirrors wearing full makeup and the latest fashions. They are encouraged and expected to compete in a daily public beauty competition judged by the boys they will one day have a chance of being chosen by.

Our protagonist is #630, frieda. The women’s names are all lower cased. They’ll be discarded when they come of age. Their teachers, the chastities, women deemed too unattractive for male, refer to them by their numbers. A typical heroine would be bright enough to see through her lifetime of lies, immune to her conditioning, and cunning enough to escape.

frieda can’t read. She’s desperate to maintain her interpersonal relationships at almost any cost. She loathes herself. And she has a sleeping disorder. Nonetheless she is different from her peers. She’s almost as disoriented by this chauvinist dystopia as the reader and that is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength.

She struggles to fit in, to act appropriately, to do the right thing. As she understands it. She makes mistakes and we, readers, suffer far more than she does.

Only Ever Yours presents a truly terrifying future not far removed from our own. O’Neill relentlessly excavates what it means to be a woman in a culture of objectification. It’s sharp, poignant satire with no easy out. 

This book will haunt you.

Recommended for fans of Friedrich Engels, Tina Fey, and George Orwell.

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