I wasn’t going to review this until my sister had read it, but then I realised that my mother had forgotten to bring the book with her this weekend and now it’s going to be another month, and basically here is a proviso at the top of my post: Sinéad! Don’t read this ’til after you read the book!
So! This book was recommended to me months ago by Sally, and it sat in the back of my mind until my birthday rolled around, when my sister very kindly got it for me. In the mean time, it won The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize, so I was looking forward to good things when I opened up this book.
And I was not disappointed. It’s sharply written, incisive, exciting, refreshing, and at the same time bleak and depressing and oooh, just wonderful. ‘O’Neill write with a scalpel’, the cover proclaims, and it’s not wrong.
frieda and isabel have been best friends their whole lives.
Now, aged sixteen and in their final year at the School, they expect to be selected as companions – wives to wealthy and powerful men. The alternative – life as a concubine – is too horrible to contemplate.
But as the intensity of the final year takes hold, the pressure to remain perfect becomes almost unbearable. isabel starts to self-destruct, putting her beauty – her only asset – in peril.
And then, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.
frieda must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known…
This is not a happy book. This is not a book where the narrator is a flawless (or even flawed) girl who realises the difficulties of her world and sets about changing her entire life by dismantling the system, overthrowing the president, escaping from the restrictive world she lives in and changing things for the better.
No, this book is much better than that. This book is a bleak, acerbic look at girls and women and the perception of beauty, intelligence, and the worth of women in a world where the human population is reduced to only a few small pockets of civilisation.
This book is, essentially, everything The Jewel could have been.
There were several things I really liked about this book. First and foremost among these was the whole idea and the way it was dealt with. Even though I’ve read lots of dystopian books, and at first glance this looked a lot like another The Selection, ‘The Jewel’ or whatever, it’s ten times better than anything they could offer. It’s just on a different level altogether. While The Selection tackles a weird subject, it ends up being quite a happy sort of book, where Only Ever Yours is just not. It’s not happy at all.
Secondly, I really liked that O’Neill did all her worldbuilding, rising story arc, climax and conclusion in a single book. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read in the last five years or so which just don’t do that. Their entire premise is a set-up for a whole series of books. Only Ever Yours is just not. It comes in, sets up the world, the characters, builds the tension, climaxes (maybe a little too late) and finishes, all in one magnificently-packaged, perspective-altering stack of pages.
Thirdly, there were so many little touches in this book which really set my teeth on edge, in a good way. The whole idea of women being divided into concubines and companions, as well as the little mentions of their celebrity culture, the fact that women’s names weren’t capitalised, the brushing away of eating disorders as accepted/normal, the treatment of domestic violence – all hints at a world which was so twisted, yet so well-plotted.
And lastly, I loved that the narrator, the protagonist of the book, she wasn’t the special snowflake that many others are. She wasn’t the most beautiful, she was horrendously flawed, she wasn’t even likeable most of the time. That just served to make the book more compelling though.
I tore through this book, finishing it within a day or two of starting, and was left deeply unsettled, but in the best way. The whole book has lingered in my mind for the following week and a half, even though I’ve read two books since then, which I think is a mark of O’Neill’s talented writing. A book which lingers is definitely one which catches my attention and highly worthy of recommendation. Plus the ending! I had to just stop and stare at a wall for a while as I thought about it.
I’ve told my sister that she needs to read this book, and tried to send it home to her at the earliest possible opportunity. I also urge you, if you are reading this review, to read Only Ever Yours. It is a really, really accomplished début, and I’m already salivating, waiting for O’Neill’s second offering, which is due out in September 2015.
I originally gave Only Ever Yours four stars, because I thought the ending was rushed, but on reflection, I’m upping it to five stars, because I think the pacing of the ending matches the tone of the ending, and on contemplation I agree with it.