This is my second book by O’Neill, and while it wasn’t nearly as powerful as Asking for It, it still kept me thinking well after I put it down. O’Neill draws characters that feel very real, and her books leave an emotional impact.
Only Ever Yours is set in a dystopian future where girls are no longer born, they are bred. They grow up in schools where they are groomed for three possible futures: companion (wife/mother), chastity (nun/teacher), or concubine. Their future is determined for them upon graduation; only the prettiest, most liked girls are chosen as companions.
Frieda is part of a class of thirty in her final year of school. The girls must compete with each other (they are ranked regularly on their appearance) and their every action is dissected on social media. Frieda has been second only to her friend Isabel for years; she’s torn between love for her friend and jealousy. When Isabel starts to fall apart, Frieda has to decide whether to put her ranking or her friend first.
Frieda’s world is completely isolated; the entire book takes place in one building and the girls only see their teachers, their classmates, and the ten boys who are allowed to visit them for the purpose of choosing some of them as wives. It’s Mean Girls meets Love Island, only in this story only the boys get to make any choices.
This book draws obvious comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and certainly it owes a debt to that book. But if you’re looking for another Handmaid’s Tale you’ll be disappointed. Handmaid is so terrifying because readers can see how the world went from the one we’re in today to one that seems scarily possible. This book would have benefitted from more world-building, because it doesn’t give the reader that sense that this is where we could end up if we’re not careful.
Setting aside the Handmaid comparisons, this book is chilling in its portrayal of teenage girls groomed to tear each other apart, to fixate on appearance and popularity, and to be watched at all times through social media. O’Neil doesn’t have to create a future that seems possible; in many ways her book works as an exploration of our present state.
I think this book would be great for teens, as it reads a little young for adults, though it still raises serious issues. It’s a bit repetitive and angsty, but then Frieda’s world is incredibly limited, and I think the repetition gives you that sense of a group of girls given absolutely nothing to do all day but look at social media (they are denied any real education, so this in itself is horrifying).
I liked the way Frieda has to wrestle with what it means to be a “good girl” in this world — is it following the rules, is it being nice, is it watching out for her friend, or is it standing up to the girls who lie and hurt each other? She’s given a conflicting and unclear set of rules that are impossible to follow.
“We have never had a class on how to say no to men while simultaneously never saying no to them.”Louise O’Neill, Only Ever Yours
I hated Frieda at times. I hated her partly because I was her in high school — someone who might have done just about anything to be liked. Someone who didn’t know how to navigate the social boundaries that were imposed on us. It felt like we’d all been judged and ranked. And as in this story, I remember there were girls who seemed comfortable in their own skin, and I envied them. For me, at least, O’Neill painted a picture of high school that felt absolutely real. And I had none of the pressures kids must face today with social media and internet.
Actually, one of the weaknesses of this book was that Frieda’s world is so different from ours, her reactions don’t always feel realistic. I think O’Neill tries to give you that feel of girls born into a life they have no idea how to challenge; yet at times Frieda’s reactions seem too close to what ours would be in the same situation. She seems to have a clear sense that the rules are unfair and that she should have better choices, but it’s not clear where those ideas come from. I think this book would have benefitted from more back-story, or maybe more involvement of other characters, so that the girls’ differing reactions seem more understandable.
Published in 2014, this is O’Neill’s first novel. As a debut novel, it has some weaknesses – it is neither The Handmaid’s Tale, nor is it Asking For It – but for anyone who likes YA dystopian fiction, this is a good one. I read this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.