Review: Once and For All by Sarah Dessen

Once and For All by Sarah Dessen

Published: Viking Books
ISBN: 9780425290866
Released: June 6 2017

Read: March 15, 2017


I love looking at reviews of Sarah Dessen’s books and seeing people who have left their teenage years behind who continue to read her. That’s how long she’s been writing. I think this is her 13th full length novel, and while they are all standalone, characters do inhabit the same universe, with some previous couples popping in and out of each other’s stories. It’s one of the fun parts of reading—who will cameo in this one? (Not telling, the surprise is the best bit!)

In Once and For All, Louna is a 17 year old girl who works part time for her mother’s wedding planning business. She’s practical, organised, and can follow a run sheet like nobody else. Ambrose bursts into her ordered world, bringing with him spontaneity, chaos, and idealism, a combination that irritates the heck  out of cynical Louna. It’s terrific to see her take him down in a few sharp, sentences, and the number of times she could say (but doesn’t), I told you so, is hilarious. Dessen, the word master, describes Ambrose through Louna’s eyes the first time she sees him:

He was like that upside-down exclamation point at the beginning of a sentence in Spanish, the mere appearance of which warned of something complicated ahead.

Trouble! That’s for sure.

While it’s clear the end game is romance, Dessen doesn’t avoid serious topics. She’s also interested in portraying family in its many guises. Here we have Louna’s mother, abandoned by her husband when Louna is only two, joining forces with William to became innovative wedding planners, and thereby creating an odd but thoroughly significant family unit. Both Natalie and William are cynical about love and happy-ever-afters, but paradoxically, this makes them the perfect combination for planning weddings. William as a gay man, has been a strong supporter and father figure to Louna for 15 years, and is always there when she needs him. I love this expression of family.

A serious topic explored here is that of school shootings. Louna’s experience is long distanced, but completely traumatising. Her involvement is told through flashbacks and accounts for why she dismisses Ambrose so utterly. The emotional impact on readers when it’s revealed shows how good a writer Dessen is… she lays out the clues, and as we swap back and forth between hard-edged Louna fighting off charming Ambrose, and the one night of intimacy Louna shared with her soul mate Ethan, and the pay-off is a long-time coming, increasing its authenticity and satisfaction.

As I say, it’s more than just the romance. Louna’s best friend Kirby juggles the job of babysitting many younger siblings, her own part-time work, a boyfriend, and a jittery Louna, unable to move on after Ethan. When Louna’s mum employs Ambrose (for a variety of reasons), his ineptness and lack of concern for that, tires Louna, but also frees her up to enjoy her last summer. The weddings being planned are sentimental but sometimes hilarious (a circus theme? Really?), and then there’s the rescue dog, the dare, and the ongoing trauma of Ethan. He’s a pervasive presence, both good and bad.

This is an engaging book, with lots of story and character. Dessen takes her time and as you’d expect, it takes a while to tie up all the threads satisfactorily, but she does and they do, and I completely loved this book.

Thanks to publisher and Netgalley for offered an advanced copy. Out everywhere on June 6. Highly recommended for lovers of Sarah Dessen’s work (naturally), and for teens who enjoy novels that are more than just the romance, who love that all the characters shine, and who love their boys swoony, yet flawed.


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