Review: Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

Initial reaction: I really enjoyed the journey in this latest book from Sarah Dessen. Sweet romance story in places, but it’s also a great story surrounding grief and family as well. Louna was a nice protagonist to follow, though I did feel certain moments and revelations felt a bit rushed.

Full review:

I still struggle to try to frame my thoughts around Sarah Dessen’s “Once and for All” – because this story has a lot to unpack with being a slice of life romance paired with a overarching story of grief and coming to terms. It follows right in the vein and voice of many of Dessen’s other novels, and I thought the experience was heartfelt and identifiable on the whole. I didn’t realize how much I’d like this read for the type of story it told until I picked it up and decided to run with what it had to offer. An overarching critique I could give this narrative is that it has bumpy pacing (moves too fast in some points and too slow in others – something I’ll reflect upon in this review) and a certain plot point was delayed far too long when it was obvious after a certain point that it was coming.

Louna tells two tales in this overarching narrative. In the past (and told in flashbacks), Louna reflects on a whirlwind romance she shared with her former boyfriend Ethan. It’s a bit of instalove considering the terms in which they meet, but somehow I felt I could get behind it because of the intimacy of the character detail and their chemistry. Their relationship is mercilessly cut short, and Louna thinks she’s basically one and done – had her ideal romance and another one won’t really come along again. Ironic, even as she points out, because she helps her mother in her famous wedding planning business.

Louna’s perspective changes with the entrance of Ambrose – spontaneous, good-humored, but reckless and full of flaws. Even from the first time they meet, he’s the thorn in a time-sensitive wedding ceremony that she has to haul him into (literally) at the last moment. He is her polar opposite in every way, but he attempts to create a relationship with her every chance he can. It was fun to watch their interactions in the slice of life moments. He isn’t aware of Louna’s relationship with Ethan and the barriers that keep her cynical and reluctant to be in another relationship. The story eventually has a coming of terms for Louna in both her grief and her ability to know what she wants for the future. I appreciated that this was definitely a coming of age tale for Louna and remained firmly in her viewpoint, with moments of the supporting characters around her to shine and create a nice familial focus to boot. The wedding planning aspect of the novel was fun to watch and felt very realistic, while also being a unique aspect that I haven’t seen in a lot of YA novels.

I think the major issue that kept this book from being a higher rating from me personally was the uneven pacing. Part of that was due to the way that the conflict around Ethan was framed. While impactful and horrifying, it wasn’t as much of a mystery (though it portrayed itself as such) after it came to a certain point. It felt like the book was dragging its heels just to get to that revelation. Once that revelation came, and Ambrose recognizes the truth behind it, the conflict associated with that revelation moved too quickly to be able to feel Louna’s full weighing the balance of it. I understand that the story had to be that way (past interspersed with present) in order to frame the narrative, but maybe it could’ve came a lot sooner than it did, especially with the impact it had to Louna’s relationship with Ambrose and being a part of the “bet” that’s developed between them.

It’s a good, character driven story, and one that I think teens would enjoy for a sweet coming to terms story showcasing much growth on the part of the protagonist. Yet, I think some pieces of it work against it from having more emotional punch, particularly with the difficult and very relevant backdrop it paints.

Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.

Note: I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley from the publisher.

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