This week, I’m writing about Once and for All, the latest YA novel by one of my all-time favorites, Sarah Dessen. Each time I crack open a new Sarah Dessen novel, I’m coming to it with years of fond memories, starting with the very first time I read Sarah Dessen in the 7th grade at the recommendation of my language arts teacher.
I’ve grown up reading these books, and it’s been a pleasure over the last few releases to see how Dessen’s style has grown and changed, too. Saint Anything surprised me by breaking the mold and shifting the focus a bit, but that was just a stepping stone compared to what we get in Once and For All.
I can’t write this post without getting a little personal and a little bit spoilery, so bear with me and don’t read past the spoiler warning (I’ll say when) if you don’t want to know one of the key plot elements (it’s pretty obvious early on, in my opinion, but still).
When I was a kid reading Dessen, I was a massive romantic just waiting for my love story to start. But as the years went by and my efforts at dating produced anything but a love story, that perspective started to shift. I brought something different to each subsequent books as I grew up. For a brief time, I couldn’t read Sarah Dessen at all–I was that despondent about the reality of love stories. So in jaded, pessimistic Louna, I found a protagonist I could really relate to.
Louna’s mother and godfather, William, are wedding planners. She’s spent years of her life working to help stage happy endings–which, as we know, are really just well-planned beginnings for marriages that will or will not work out long term. Her mother and William have long stopped believing in happy endings, and now, so has Louna.
(The spoiler is coming–shield your eyes)
This is because, as we soon suspect and then outright know, her first love, Ethan, was killed in a school shooting. When Dessen first mentioned the black sundress and sandals hidden away in Louna’s closet, my mind instantly flashed to a funeral. At first, I assumed I was bringing my own baggage to the page. For those who don’t know me personally, I’ll briefly explain why: last year, my first love and college boyfriend died suddenly at the age of 24.
But as I kept reading, I realized that while the dress wasn’t from a funeral, Louna really had experienced the loss of someone young who she had been dating. I struggled to hold back tears at how absolutely perfectly Sarah Dessen had chosen the struggle of the next protagonist she would write after my ex boyfriend’s death. The circumstances were different (Louna was still dating Ethan when died, for example), but a lot of the emotions were the same–the sense of unfairness, the sense that your one love story had already played out and you wouldn’t get a second one. I hadn’t expected to find a protagonist who shared those feelings with me, let alone to find her between the pages of a novel written by a writer I’d already loved for years.
This similarity made the book difficult to read at times, but it was exactly the book I needed. Seeing the ways in which Louna’s past impacted her attitudes and reactions to the present reminded me to examine my own feelings. Watching her cautiously fall in love a second time reminded me that my story isn’t over, either. For that, I am so grateful that, of all the backstories Sarah Dessen could’ve written, she tackled the difficulty of losing someone you loved, someone your age.
Aside from this very personal reason for loving the book, I was also interested in the narrative structure. In the past, Sarah Dessen has written more or less chronological straightforward narratives, but this book braids together the past and present, alternating between chapters so that we see the past influences unfold at the same time as the present events. I think this was absolutely the best way to tell this story. It really reinforces the reality that our past when it comes to relationships impacts how we behave in new ones. Plus, for those who don’t immediately jump to the worst conclusion, it probably adds a nice bit of suspense for how, exactly, the previous relationship ended.
I loved this book. I am grateful for this book. I cried while writing this post about this book. If you’re looking for a YA romance with a little tint of hopeful sadness in it, go grab a copy of Once and For All.
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