Young Adult dystopia at its best
A book by its concept
Set in a dystopian world where girls are no longer born naturally but created artificially, this book explores the impact of gender roles on young women’s lives. It has been described as the Young Adult vision of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, so expectations are high.
Best friends freia and isabel are in their final year at the School, the female-only institute that prepares them for the most important moment of their education: the Ceremony that will decide how they spend the rest of their lives – as companions, concubines or chastities. The book follows freida and the rest of her class as they discover new pressures from the arrival of the Inheritants, the young men looking to choose their companions.
In this world, the girls are encouraged to compare themselves to each other; they are shamed for venturing even slightly out of their ‘ideal weight’; they are denied the opportunity to become academic. We watch as freida’s friendship with isabel dissolves and how freida’s slowly breaks down as she struggles to remain perfect.
A book by its cover
I know the story inside is far more important than how the outside appears, but there have been so many pretty book covers recently that it seems only sensible to give them a mention while we’re here. The cover for Only Ever Yours, designed by Nicola Theobald, is a great one to start with. I have the UK first edition (signed by the author!) and it perfectly captures what’s in store for readers. The bold texts paired with the half-glimpse of a familiar blonde haired doll are striking by themselves – but the shout line ‘choose a girl to own forever’ is what had me intrigued.
Later editions have changed the design a little: pale pink replaces black or a line of shadowy doll figure takes centre-stage instead. However, most have remained close to the original so I’m not too annoyed (this seems to be changing, though – more on that in my review for O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It).
What bemuses me is that publishers feel the need to produce a different cover when a YA book makes the leap to the Adult Fiction shelves. Maybe an older audience would only respond to a cover with an older-looking doll? Who knows? Personally, I’m more than happy with the one displayed on my own shelf.
A book by its contents
This is one of those books that is awful to read but undeniably an excellent story. Be warned: at no point is there a moment spared for a giggle and the ending is heavily book-coma inducing.
First, let’s cover the reasons this book is a terrible read: the characters are unlikable, the plot is frustrating, many problems are left unresolved, all major plot points leave the reader feeling uncomfortable and upset…
And O’Neill achieves exactly what she intends and more. This is dystopian fiction in its classic form – there is no sign of the recent trend of teenagers running around, picking up the pieces left by the adults in time for a proper series conclusion.
The story is wonderfully worked and the world is cleverly drawn out. Only Ever Yours makes its themes and ideas beautifully complex so a re-read is in order, but leaves everything simple enough so the book is accessible to every type of reader.
As always, however, there are a few downsides. We only see freida’s perspective so the word outside of the School is never explored in detail. I would have liked to have seen what life is like for Darwin (one of the Inheritants and freida’s brief love interest) and the problems he might face. Alternatively, isabel’s character disappears fairly swiftly from the narrative and the final twists left me wishing the book had explored her perspective. Even so, I can’t help but feel as if these criticisms are part of O’Neill’s vision and only add to its meaning.
A book by its writing
From the start, expectations are high: Jeanette Winterson asserts on the cover ‘O’Neill writes with a scalpel’. Soon after starting the book I realised what she meant. Only Ever Yours is ruthless in its narrative and never wastes a sentence. Every word is chosen with a reason and purpose. It feels like being placed in good hands when reading, close to someone who knows exactly what they’re doing and how to do it. There is no struggling through a dull passage or difficulty understanding a confused line; instead, there is reading away within the comforts of O’Neill’s words. For a debut novel, this is a strong start that only promises even more excellent books to come!
A book by its impact
The world in Only Ever Yours sounds eerily familiar. O’Neill never hesitates to explore problems that exist today – eating disorders, media and gender roles to name a few. She strips modern-day society down to its backbone, ruthlessly writing about what may happen if society were able to create women from scratch, exaggerating pressures women face from both men and themselves. It’s a tunnel to prompt younger YA readers and older ones alike to think about the everyday things people don’t look on twice.
Overall: 5 stars, put on the top of your TBR