Review: ‘Only Ever Yours’ by Louise O’Neill

eves are designed, not made.

The School trains them to be pretty.

The School trains them to be good.

The School trains them to Always be Willing.

All their lives, the eves have been waiting. Now, they are ready for the outside world.

companion . . . concubine . . . or chastity

Only the best will be chosen.

And only the Men decide.

Only Ever Yours

Louise O’Neill’s books have made a lot of noise. So many of the BookTubers I watch, and whose tastes I trust, began recommending her all around the same time that my curiosity was peaked, and I picked up a copy of Only Ever Yours. Recently I was out in Bath and noticed that Louise O’Neill would be at a Waterstones event, talking about her more recent book Asking For It. So I got my ticket, rushed home, and grabbed the book I had shelved months before.

I binge-read Only Ever Yours in two sittings. The nature of the story follows freida, an eve in her sixteenth year. That isn’t a typo on her name – in this world, everything reinforces the importance of Men and the service role of eves, down to the linguistic significance granted by being able to capitalise your name. eves names are never capitalised, although they would never have the opportunity to observe this symbol of their secondary status, since eves are never taught to read or write. The integration of this gap is also impressively made – statuses and comments on their social media sites are all audio. Written language is a power only given to Men, and to freida it almost seems like magic, increasing her worship of those she was designed for.

It is an immersive experience, and I don’t think this was just the speed at which I read. What struck me several times was the way that while the setting is extreme, at times I would forget – our own social rules are still recognisable within the dystopia. The atmosphere of girls in school, of competitiveness and pressure sometimes felt much more familiar than they should. The claustrophobia of the school is a heightened version of our own cultural hall of mirrors, where we reflect constantly back to each other the ideals we are held to. What makes this striking is that when put into this context, is is less comfortable to excuse those moments in everyday life as normal or harmless – when seen as a piece in the structure that allows this system to function, it feels less excusable.

What I also found unsettling about reading the book is that in some ways, is how impossible it is to know what to root for. Should we hope freida achieves her ambition, in becoming a companion? Should we hope that isabel will just stick to her acceptable weight, and be left alone? As a reader, there is no line which you can feel entirely comfortable hoping for, and yet as the story marches on, we are used to hoping for a resolution. And so the author brings you into the strange, mind-altering culture of pressure that the characters are dealing with and challenges you not to want something for them which you still recognise as awful – you know that they have been trained to want this, that it is a life of continued abuse they will enter, whether they become companion, concubine or chastity. You dislike certain eves before remembering that they are victims and products of the same system – as the Guardian’s review notes, ‘if these girls [are] shallow, cruel and morally broken because they were designed specifically to be that way, what[‘s] our excuse?’

This is certainly not an easy read, but I do think a valuable one. As well as a compelling story with sympathetic characters at its centre, and a brilliant central relationship under examination, it holds a magnifying glass over the small instances of misogyny we might be ready to excuse. It asks what that willingness to justify smaller examples might support – and jolts into perspective how ridiculous some of the things we come to accept actually are.

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