Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

only 1
This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

double love
Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

bruce patmantodd wilkins

Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

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30 comments

  1. I grew up on English schoolboy fiction (in the fifties) so I’ve set my 12yo granddaughter to read some Sweet Valley high and report back to me. She’s a bit young yet for this one. And it seems a bit hard to put up with the Eves’ point of view for a couple of hundred pages if in the end the author is critical of their society, is attempting by exaggeration to critique present day US/Western values

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  2. Hmm… I’m not much of a fan of YA either in general, and I must say this sounds too – I’m not quite sure what – too predictable, too old-fashioned somehow. It sounds like The Stepford Wives, which said something significant about the time it was written in… not sure this one sounds as if it does….

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  3. This sounds very interesting, and maybe the comparisons I’ve seen all over the place will send people to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, too. I love your SVH comparison, I wonder what the author would make of it.

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  4. Okay, many thoughts. Firstly, LOVE your SVH comparisons.
    Secondly, I don’t think I knew this was intended as YA – over 400 pages certainly stretches it for that genre.
    Lastly, as I was reading your outline of the plot, all I could think (before the SVH mention, of course) was Handmaid’s Tale. Now I loved that book when I read it decades ago – only read it once but it has stayed with me. I’m not ordinarily into dystopian and I suspect Atwood set a ridiculously high benchmark for all my future dystopian reads – few have measured up since (the exception being Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things).

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    • If you’ve read Atwood’s book, you could probably skip this one. Honestly, I just felt bad for three days after I read it. There are so many books detailing the horrors women and girls suffer, plus news stories (esp. the recent horror of the Stanford rapist) that I need to back away and read some stories that are important, interesting, and less sexual assault-y.

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  5. Great post! Love what you said about YA books sounding like a “Just Say No” campaign. I read all the Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins, and Sweet Valley High books by the time I was 10 and now I’m wondering how much reading them affected me! I was Team Elizabeth by the way:)

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    • I could never decide! The machine that made these books (it wasn’t really Francine Pascal) would design the plot so you hated Jessica for being so selfish, but then you would hate Elizabeth for being such a wuss. Then, in a different book, something bad would happen to Elizabeth, and Jessica would be so remorseful and cry about how she’d never do wrong again, and Elizabeth would have to forgive her. I think I equally hated and liked them both and just really, really wanted to date their older brother, Steven.

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  6. I just recently started reading diverse books, mostly adult fiction along with classics, as I am trying to read a book from every country. But I’ll admit it, my reading (and my blog) was very centered around YA for quite some time, until 2016.
    YA is just…addicting. While I love some of it, and while it has some of the best storytelling there is, it can get very redundant and a little shallow. Glad I’m getting to separate with it for a while, but it still haunts me haha because a lot of my blogger friends are YA bloggers.
    Anyway, trying to widen my scope of diverse bloggers who appreciate great literature! So glad I stumbled upon your blog 🙂
    Kate @Read and Dream

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  7. As I was reading I thought ‘This sounds a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale’! It’s funny, I adore YA, but I never read Sweet Valley as a kid; I was team Fear Street all the way. This one sounds interesting, though I’m a little wary of YA dystopia at the moment. There’s been so much of it in the past few years, it’s a little overwhelming and a lot of the titles I’ve read end up feeling really similar.

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    • To me it’s overwhelming in this way that makes me feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. I read a few Fear Street, but I read all the Goosebumps until I essentially “aged out” (as Stein is still writing them!).

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  8. Goosebumps is still going?! I remember reading dozens of them (and Babysitters Club) in primary school before moving on to Fear Street and Christopher Pike then Stephen King. Scream queen all the way.

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        • You know, I don’t get excited about books on the same level now as I did when I was a kid, so it’s fun to have people to talk to. I’m finding my fellow Sweet Valley Twin fans are thinning out, but the R.L. Stein crew is always good to go. But year, he’s still writing books, it’s all him (no ghost writer), and he’s active on Twitter. He was also on this hilarious episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR on which he talked about how he started out as a comedy writer/comedian.

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          • I can imagine Stein would have been a decent comedian! I’ll have to see if I can get the podcast of him on NPR. This American Life (I know, I’m obsessed) interviewed Francine Pascal for their Prom episode a few weeks ago. That was really interesting even as someone who never read Sweet Valley. I still get crazy excited about books, but I think I have stronger and fonder memories of the books I read as a kid.

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  9. Okay, my second comment on this post – not about SVH this time! I happen to be reading O’Neill’s book ‘Asking For It’ at the moment. A few initial thoughts – firstly, she’s a very good writer and I’m finding her plot far more nuanced than the usual for YA. Secondly, it is YA or emerging adult? Asking For It is fairly full-on although I keep reminding myself that these are real and existing issues for teens.

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