I read this on the floor of a train station during a ten-hour train delay, finishing around 2am, and it was probably the perfect experience for this book. Strange, long, complicated, at times mysterious and frustrating, Only Ever Yours brought perfectly together Brave New World and 1984- but with a more direct commentary on feminism, the role of women in society, sexuality, and media. (While also having time to talk about racism, eating disorders, sex, sexism, social inoculation, brainwashing, and mental illness).
And listen, folks, I’m not a pretentious person. You won’t catch me dead giving a holler about women’s studies or queer theory. But Only Ever Yours is not some highbrow, academic commentary. It’s a solid story in an extreme dystopia, where the world has shaped the characters perfectly, and the reader never quite knows enough.
It’s been awhile since I read it, so I’m afraid I’ll have to risk getting minor details wrong.
In the far future, women are no longer born naturally, and instead only a select few are created each year, raised in a tight dormitory until they turn 18. Then they may fill one of three roles. The most desirable is that of a Companion, a wife and mother to the next generation of men. But only 10 a year are picked for this, the rest are made into concubines or teachers.
Freida and Isabel are two of the highest rated girls in their year, and best friends. But something strange is happening to Isabel. She is gaining weight, acting odd, spiraling out of control… and Frieda, no matter her love for her friend, knows her role is to remain her best. To be picked, even without Isabel, even if she has to betray her.
Only Ever Yours is a dark, layered book under a surface of cat-fighting and gossip. The girls are obsessed with their appearances, with rumors and hearsay- but they have to be. They are ranked every day, and in school participate in games of finding flaws in each other. They are drugged and absolutely brainwashed, so even if sometimes the minor squabbles get tiring, it is all true to the world.
The world is well painted. It’s first person, and true to that, often very dull and blunt, following Frieda’s evolving (and sometimes plummeting) mental state. The air of this world is moody. Beyond the pettiness, there is something clearly wrong everywhere, not just what is the obvious dystopia: Frieda feels wrong, depressed, mentally ill, but desperate to be loved and fit in. Isabel, once her close friend and human connection, is wrong. The boys, when they arrive- something is off about them, too.
This is the perfect world-building to me, where there is no winking explanation, no acknowledgement that someone is reading. Things are as they are, written to be understandable, but not exposition’d to all hell.
The thing I appreciated most, too, was something I fear all the time: how many answers? This is a weird book at times, alien in how crazed the setup is, and it reminds me of Welcome To Night Vale. That book, too, I started to get afraid at a certain point. That all the nonsense would continue forever, that the plot threads would be left vague and surreal.
Good news: This, more than WTNV, has the perfect amount of answers. Enough that you’re left with a dreadful, speculative air at the end. Not too much that the world is laid bare, either, complete.
As covered/mentioned above, this is a book that deals with sex, sexuality, minor racism, quite a lot of (obviously!) sexism, eating disorders, I forget but think self harm, and the general standards of perfection women are held to. You should read with digression, but I really think you should read.
(And, because if you don’t notice, I’m marking this as lgbt+- yes, the ‘friendship’ between Freida and Isabel is to a degree something more. But of course, this is a society that does not acknowledge any sort of homosexuality* as existing, so… well, divulging too much is a spoiler/bit much, but know that it does come up)
*you’d really think a society without women would have gay men, at least, as legitly accepted. There’s only 10 women a year to marry, at least let the rest have their fun. I am interested in stories where there is that dynamic of gender, but so rarely is there the inevitably gay stuff that’d exist.