Only Ever Yours

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Only Ever Yours Book Poster Image
Disturbing, riveting dystopian novel skewers beauty values.

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age 13+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Dystopian, near-future fantasy provokes a lot of thought about beauty, gender roles in society, patriarchy, sources of self-worth, what is of value to society, women being pitted against each other, and much more.

Positive Messages

Some positive messages about how wrong it is to place looks above all else and the power of friendship are demonstrated using extreme opposite examples. This grim near-future world serves as a cautionary tale, with negative examples of what could happen after catastrophic climate change and a plummeting population. Women are genetically engineered to be perfect; they exist only to serve men and have no power over any aspect of their own lives. Beauty is prized above all else, and women and girls compete against each other for top ratings, which gives rise to friendships of convenience and betrayals. Dissent and rule-breaking are severely punished.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Instead of staying loyal to her best friend, narrator freida immerses herself in the politics of the popular clique, trying desperately to raise her ranking so she'll be well positioned in society when school is over. At almost every turn, freida makes the wrong choice. The best that can be said of her, and of everyone except for the men in power, is that they're victims of circumstance whose best course of action is going along to get along. Her friend and a teacher do try to help her.

Violence

A prisoner repeatedly bangs her head on a mirrored wall and cuts her head, scratches until her hands bleed, and throws things at mirrors and breaks them. Blood is mentioned several times but not described. A teacher hits a student with a wooden spoon; welts are mentioned. A gynecological exam involves the doctor shoving a rod inside a woman very hard and advising the patient to get used to it. A teen is kicked and bleeds. It's hinted that a man physically abuses his teen son.

Sex

Sexual politics is a frequent theme. Women exist only to produce male children, provide men with sexual pleasure, and prepare girls and teens for their future roles. Teens discuss sex; they're not graphic but mention watching pornography to see how it's done. A teen mentions seeing women use ping-pong balls and tells a boy she's been practicing with them. Teen boys and girls are paired up and locked in closets, and it's presumed that many have sex. Narrator freida has sex once, but it's not described in detail. A few instances of kissing described briefly. Menstruation is seen as unclean, and freida's first period is traumatic and described vaguely.

Language

Lots of name-calling includes "bitch," "slut," "whore," and "fatass." "S--t," "crap," "ass," "f--king," and "p---y."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teen girls in school are medicated daily by the teachers and don't always know what they're taking. They take laxatives and ipecac to maintain their weight. Freida becomes addicted to sleeping pills. A teen enjoys a craft beer; a legal drinking age isn't mentioned.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Louise O’Neill's Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel about a near-future world in which population decline has resulted in women being genetically engineered and trained from a young age to either produce male children as official wives or provide sexual companionship as concubines, and it's worthy of comparison with The Handmaid's Tale. The only things of value women have to offer society are their beauty and their fertility, and all power is in the hands of a few men. Teen characters live isolated from society in a school where beauty rankings are the only thing that matters, and extreme weight-loss measures such as taking laxatives and vomiting are frequent topics and the source of disturbing images. Fat is not tolerated, and the message that no man could ever love someone who's fat is reinforced. Strong language is mostly derogatory toward women, such as "bitch," "slut," and "whore." Other profanity is occasional and includes "s--t" and "f--king." Talk about sex and how it affects women's bodies is also frequent but mostly vague and not explicit. Teens watch instructional videos of people having sex and mention watching pornography. Blood is mentioned a few times, there's a traumatic first period, suicide is mentioned, and a prisoner injures herself trying to get out of her room. It's a cautionary tale and provides a lot of food for thought about body image and how beauty standards dictate our perceived worthiness.

User Reviews

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Teen, 14 years old Written byliterarylover March 19, 2016

What's the story?

At 16, freida (whose name is printed in lowercase) is in her last year at school. At the end of the year, her fate will be decided in a ceremony where she'll learn whether she's to be a companion (wife), a concubine, or a chastity (teacher). Always ranked in the Top 10, freida has a good chance at a coveted companion position. But her best friend isabel, who always ranked No. 1, has begun to distance herself from freida and, worse still, gains weight and loses her top spot. Without her best friend, freida throws herself into the politics of the popular clique and goes along with the power games in a desperate effort to recover her high rank. The constant pressure to be thin and beautiful becomes even harder to take when she meets Darwin, the highest-ranked boy and the one she hopes will find her worthy as a companion. But to secure her future, freida ends up betraying and being betrayed in turn. As she starts to fall from grace, her future is no longer a sure thing. Is she still a worthy choice for Darwin? Who will be ONLY EVER YOURS?

Is it any good?

Thought-provoking and disturbing, this riveting novel is also a beautifully written, remarkable debut. The near-future world, after a climate-change apocalypse, is fully imagined and vividly realized. The claustrophobic, insular lives of 16-year-old girls as they struggle against themselves and each other will ring eerily true for today’s teens who are bombarded with beauty messages, reality-show infighting, and queen-bee power plays.

Freida’s strong, believable narrative voice draws the reader into her world. Despite some of her cringeworthy mistakes and bad choices, teens will find themselves thoroughly absorbed in freida’s future, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Author Louise O’Neill doesn’t wrap things neatly with a bow, either. The shocking end is every bit as dark and disturbing as everything that leads up to it. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why dystopian novels are so popular. Why are we so fascinated by them?

  • Do you feel pressure to be as beautiful as possible? Where does that pressure come from, do you think? How are society's expectations of beauty the same, or different, for us than for the teens in Only Ever Yours?

  • Do you think a society such as this one can last long? How might it ever change or come to an end?

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