Only a handful of books make me tremble and cringe and Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is now one of them. Compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Only Ever Yours is a YA dystopian novel about the subjugation of women, their sexuality, and their identity. The women are toxic, undermining, manipulative, narcissistic, insecure, and superficial and that’s only because they were designed this way and are otherwise known as eves—capitalization omitted intentionally. They’re artificially designed women since women are no longer born naturally. Yours feels unending of depravity and acerbic dialogue, with danger and destruction festering like a tumor, but it’s praiseworthy, evocative literature about femininity and gender inequality, nonetheless
Yours begins with freida, an eve who’s about to graduate to become a companion, a concubine, or a chastity. Eves attend a Ceremony to determine if they’re wife material, if they’re suited to a life of physically pleasing men, or if they’re a better fit to teach other future eves. But freida is more concerned about isabel, the #1 eve in the school and her best friend. Isabel suddenly distances herself at the beginning of their 16th year; she drastically falls in the rankings. To survive, freida latches onto the other top ten eves. Aimless and scared, freida herself becomes unraveled, losing weight, sleep, and her mind. Only when she meets Darwin, the #1 male in his class, that freida thinks she has a shot at a good life.
Yours is a subverted version of fairytales. There cannot be a happy ending because that would suggest that there was something right about this world when it’s already incredibly flawed. The politics and ideology of this absolute patriarchal world are long established and indoctrinated into the new generations. The damage to the eves’ psyche is extensive; they’re warped beyond repair. Unlike other YA dystopian novels where the protagonist saves the day or society revolts against the Totalitarian government, this YA dystopian is a bleak, unfavorable outcome to all women. Women aren’t permitted self-discovering or a moment of vulnerability because it may ruin their chances at happiness, which they’ve been fed (by men) to believe it’s in servicing men. They’ve been taught that the previous world, where men and women were allegedly treated as equals, was wrong. O’Neill’s resists the temptation to ostensibly write a favorable ending to preserve the notion that finding Mr. Right is still conforming to a patriarchal system denying women’s rights.
O’Neill captures with prose like butter on warm toast the significance of language and its correlation with gender roles and identity. Language is one of the most revealing trademarks in any culture especially when applied to gender roles. The one I like to bring up the most is how women are often referred to as ‘girls,’ when they are fully grown; however, referring to an adult man as a ‘boy’ is considered insulting or belittling. Yours reflects the derogatory language applied to eves that’s relevant in our culture. For example, the term ‘Feminist’ is seen as offensive in Yours. Too often this word in our culture is misinterpreted as a woman who hates men and is associated with stereotypes of domineering and bra-burning women; it means on a fundamental level a person that believes in gender equality. Yours represents the degradation of women’s value in how they omit capitalization from women’s names, not even considered proper nouns. Permissible to say, however, are ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and even using the phrase ‘Fat Bitch’ is encouraged to keep an eve’s weight down. Negative reinforcement and shame are instruments used against eves to control them. Everything is tied to the language and circulated to maintain the patriarchy.
As for the characters, a few stand out in the bunch such as freida, isabel, megan, while the others blend together making it hard to differentiate between them, which obviously touches on another point. Personality—beside the chemically manic and barely tolerable vapid eves—is just another thing stripped from them, supplemented by the need to only please men. Freida is no different. Contained in her characterization is a powerful concern and want to appease everyone, the fear of disapproval puppeteering her body and severely influencing her choices. Dictating her choices from the start is her isolation from isabel, from her pack with the group, and from Darwin. She desperately seeks companionship, which in actuality is her need to wash out her latent insecurities and self-hate. So much of Yours, narrated by freida, laments the already troubling negative self-body notions we perpetuate and harsh criticism we throw at anyone’s body we deem flawed. Freida painfully reminds us of our own shortcomings as people and the damaging effects of the beauty industries exploiting this weakness, heavily suggested in Yours mantra, “there’s always room for improvement.” Freida’s counterparts, isabel and megan, exemplify the men’s ideals and embody their purpose. Although most of the novel conceals isabel’s story, megan is affront and mostly manipulative, and she knows it. She simply can’t help it. She was designed this way. All these women are victims of a world that deprives women of choice.
Another aspect of O’Neill’s novel resides in its gender discourse and criticism. Although Yours exists in a fictional world, several of what’s mentioned is all too familiar and upholds in our culture. Most of the eves are mindless caricatures, versions of stereotypes preconceived by men of what they believed was the ideal woman. Yours illustrates this by emphasizing a woman’s appearance as her only value compared to intellect, which the men prefer eves didn’t have. Eves essentially serve only three purposes, which Yours demonstrates in its Ceremony classifications. Everything boils down to a woman’s fertility or sexual performance. A chastity, a women not serving Man, is virtually useless. And while certainly many of these things may appear nonexistent, thinking we’ve evolved passed this, influences of patriarchy remain pervasive in our culture. Women (me) still don’t have complete medical authority over their bodies. Women (me) are still made to feel like pariahs when they abstain from having children. Walking down the street, women (me, again) are catcalled, and when they (me) argue at how uncomfortable it makes them, they’re (us) told their being ‘too sensitive,’ much like Yours does when one of the eves feels hurt. And when a woman is sexually assaulted, we still hear things like, ‘she was asking for it,’ see media circulating stories that make the rapist sympathetic, and the court rules in the rapist’s favor. Yes, Yours is an uncomfortable discussion on the treatment of women, but it’s one that’s necessary and worth having, not just for men but women. Identified in Yours is also the habit of women comparing themselves to others, making undercutting, snide remarks to mar each other’s self-esteem. Yours emphasizes disunity among women, even in Feminism with its tendency to overlook marginalized groups, referenced in the eves practically painting their face in white and a narrator who tries constantly to mask her brown skin. Of course, this is just more social commentary O’Neill adds about the beauty/modeling industry lacking diversity within their models and also the products they market.
I recommend Yours to anyone. If you’ve been shying away from books described as ‘Feministy,’ this is your chance to take the plunge. Although a disturbing, dark, unflinching horrific story, Yours pries our eyes open to discussions otherwise left unsaid, unnoticed, or not even known. Ignorance is not bliss; it’s a costly mistake.