Title: Once and For All | Goodreads | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | Amazon
Author: Sarah Dessen | Website
Publishing: June 6th 2017 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Genre: YA; Contemporary; Romance
Date Read: June 2017
Louna, daughter of famed wedding planner Natalie Barrett, has seen every sort of wedding: on the beach, at historic mansions, in fancy hotels and clubs. Perhaps that’s why she’s cynical about happily-ever-after endings, especially since her own first love ended tragically. When Louna meets charming, happy-go-lucky serial dater Ambrose, she holds him at arm’s length. But Ambrose isn’t about to be discouraged, now that he’s met the one girl he really wants.
Sarah Dessen’s many, many fans will adore her latest, a richly satisfying, enormously entertaining story that has everything—humor, romance, and an ending both happy and imperfect, just like life itself.
Sarah Dessen’s contemporary novels defined the summer I was 12 years old–I had just started transitioning into YA literature and hastily checked out all of Dessen’s novels from my local library. I loved them. Anyone who has read lots of Dessen’s work (especially her older novels) is familiar with the sort of formula that they all follow. It’s much easier to pick up on now–but at 12 I adored them. Formula or not–Dessen tells unique stories (and my mind was hungry). At age 15 I had the pleasure of hearing Dessen speak at YALLFEST 2014 and was struck by her poise and her transparency. Sarah Dessen is (obviously) a real person but it wasn’t until she stood infront of me that I realized the significance of that (you can read my YALLFEST recap here…be warned it is kinda embarrassingly bad).
Then in 2015 I read Saint Anything and my entire perspective of Dessen’s work shifted. For me Saint Anything had a darker tone that many of her previous novels lacked. I was so impressed with her characterization…but if you want to read more of my gushing about Saint Anything read my review here. I was very excited to hear about Once and For All because it had been a little while! I also love weddings so the premise of a wedding filled novel made me excited–although the ~wedding planner’s daughter~ premise reminded me a lot of The Wedding Planner’s Daughter series (which has a middle grade audience). Needless to say I was quite intrigued–especially after I had access to an ARC).
In Once and For All‘s initial set up it is very clear that Louna has suffered some sort of romantic heartbreak. Although the hints individually are subtle in conjunction with one another the reader picks up on the reality of her situation. This notion is confirmed after the novel establishes its writing style (one that deviates between the past when with pre-heartbreak-Louna and the present with summertime-post-heartbreak-Louna). Once Louna’s sensitivity to school shootings becomes apparent the reader has no trouble connecting the dots–but the power of Dessen’s writing is that despite the fact that the reader knows she keeps particular characters (ones new in Louna’s life) in the dark. The most important character who falls into this category is Louna’s love interest Ambrose, who Dessen characterizes as one of those unfairly beautiful/charismatic guys who gets his way with everyone (tbh I pictured him as Sam Clafin lol). Ambrose’s attraction to Louna is apparent to the reader from the beginning (like the source of Louna’s heartbreak) but in terms of this matter Dessen keeps Louna in the dark. At the start of the novel I bought Louna’s obliviousness due to her grief–but by the end I was confused because with all of the character growth Louna goes through over the course of the novel I would expect her to be able to pick up on this! She’s not portrayed as an insecure person…but this was a minor issue.
I ended up adoring the storyline with Ambrose being in the dark about Louna’s past because it allowed the reader to “cheer the characters on” (I may have shouted lol). In the end Dessen’s way of revealing the truth expedited the process but I wish I could have seen the pair struggle more as the come together romantically and are obviously being held back by something. The “Bet” plot line between Louna and Ambrose at the end of the novel wasn’t my favorite per say (it felt contrived at times) BUT it did help dispel the notion that Ambrose “fixes” Louna–in my opinion its actually the actions of the bet that help Louna recover.
Loveliness aside I did have several qualms with a couple of aspects of Once and For All. This first one may seem a little trivial but at the beginning of the novel Dessen establishes that Louna has an affinity for paper + stationery (like me!) but that she has lost her ability/desire to write post heartbreak. I wish this thread had been returned to towards the end of the novel–it could have been a subtle representation of the growth Louna has achieved over the course of the novel. Another aspect I struggled with was that despite the developed family dynamics in Once and For All Louna’s upcoming transition period with college was largely glossed over. YA desperately needs more novels set in this transition period of the late teen years during the transition into college–I wish that Louna had displayed apprehension/excitement/SOMETHING in regards to this.
In terms of the relationships between the characters in the novel I thought that Dessen demonstrated her skills quite nicely with the exception of Louna’s best friend. I felt like her character was largely under utilized both because of her general irrelevancy and Louna’s lack of dependence on the friendship. Dessen almost tried downplay their relationship to make up for the fact that it was sort of…phony feeling? Where’s the details about the upcoming college transition?! Louna has no other friends (also?)…but the pair doesn’t seem to troubled about their upcoming separation and this didn’t feel realistic. The last relationship that I wanted to touch on was Louna’s former romantic relationship. I’ll do my best to keep details out because I appreciated the slow build Dessen crafted throughout the novel. While I loved certain aspects of this relationship…I felt like others were overly romanticized. Louna’s actions in the relationship are the opposite of everything the reader believes Louna to be. Honestly the entire thing felt very confusing…Louna’s character seemed very contradictory (but not in a ~character growth~/teenager sort of way) throughout this thread.
I think my most steadfast issue with Once and For All was that it refused to take a stance on gun violence. The characters are ones who experience the grief that comes with this violence first hand–and yet no clear opinion is established. In all honesty Louna could have an a myriad different reactions ranging from advocating for stricter gun rights to feeling the need to own a gun to protect her self. Dessen chooses nothing. At it’s heart Once and For All is firmly a romance novel–I wish it could have been more.
Design’s latest novel followed the precedent established by her previous novel and broke away from her formula–in a different way. Once and For All was just as romantic, just a sweet as Dessen’s collection but had a more gloomyish/sad tone that reminded me more of Morgan Matson’s contemporaries than Dessen’s older work. That being said, the slow burn romance between Ambrose and Louna will satisfy Dessen fans new and old. Bottom Line: Once and For All is about as romantic as it gets…but it’s not much else.