Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill: How Toxic Is Too Toxic?

only ever yoursFreida 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.

Freida must fight for her future—even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known… 

First published: 2014

Content warning: eating disorders

Only Ever Yours kept me thinking long after I finished it. It had been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years before I finally read it – a good friend of mine gave it to me for my birthday in 2016, I believe, and it had never really been at the top of my To Read list. In fact, I tended to forget about the book completely. I don’t think I’ll forget about it anymore now, though. This book is bleak, dark and completely hopeless and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not.

If I’d have to give a quick, one-sentence review I’d describe Only Ever Yours as “Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale“. I’ve seen people say that it’s too much like The Handmaid’s Tale but I disagree. Sure, there are similarities, but they’re very different books, both in terms of plot and tone. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak and grim, there is still a spark of hope throughout the book and even more so at the end. Only Ever Yours didn’t have that spark of hope.

The other difference: the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale show some form of resistance or awareness – this is not the case in Only Ever YoursAll of the characters seem to simply accept their fates, as horrible as they may be. Most even welcome it. Our main character Freida is somewhat aware of the fact that the things happening to her are awful, but she mostly blames herself – or the other girls. The only odd one out is Isabel, who behaves very differently to the other girls and tries to do everything to sabotage her life (we find out why late in the novel). But we don’t get to see her perspective – all we do get is seeing her abusing her own body. So, Isabel might be aware of the awfulness that is this society, but she never truly expresses it.

I think this lack of awareness is what makes this book such a toxic read. I got fully sucked into the story of this School where girls are taught that their worth is completely dependent on what men think of them from when they’re just 4 years old. Their looks are everything; without beauty, they are nothing. All of these girls (and their teachers) are obsessed with how much they eat, how much they weigh – how much all of the other girls weigh… I’d say every single one of these girls has an eating disorder or at the very least an extremely unhealthy relationship with food. And because no one in the story challenges these views and this behaviour, at some point, you start to go along with it as a reader, even without noticing. At least, that’s what happened to me. I didn’t notice it until I was fitting some clothes in a clothing store the day I finished reading the book and I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed I was thinking a couple of pretty toxic thoughts involving the word “gross”.

Now, I’m not normally a person who struggles with body image issues (apart from the occasional insecurity, of course), but, apparently, this book got to me. It infiltrated my thoughts with its toxicity and that was an interesting thing to become aware of. It didn’t have any severe consequences in my case because once I noticed it I managed to push aside the toxic thoughts, but I wonder what kind of an effect it can have on other people. Apparently, this book was first marketed as a YA novel but was later rebranded to an adult novel, and I can see why. Girls in a school that are hyperfocused on their bodies as well as their classmates’… Sounds a little too familiar.

Problems we have in our society are deliberately blown out of proportion in Only Ever Yours, and I thought this was fascinating and also very well done. But throughout the entire book, I was expecting something to change. I figured something was going to happen to stir things up in this society and to cause if not a revolution than at the very least a development of some sort. When that didn’t happen and things just got more bleak and dark until they finally ended, I didn’t know what to feel. It was an unexpected ending and I didn’t dislike it per se, but I did wonder – what was the point?

It almost felt like the entire point of this book was to make you feel like shit. I can’t imagine that’s truly the case, though, so what is it? Does O’Neill try to show us what might lie ahead of us if we continue to treat women the way we’re doing? It didn’t feel moralistic at all, so I don’t think that’s it either. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what an author wants to achieve when they write a book, but Only Ever Yours did keep me wondering. Such a toxic novel must have some sort of idea behind it, right? Or perhaps the entire point is that it (whatever ‘it’ may be) is pointless. 

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Hi! I'm Anne and I love reading, baking and writing about both of those things. Welcome!

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