Is it really better to have loved and lost?
Louna spends her summers helping brides plan their perfect day and handling all kinds of crises: missing brides, scene-stealing bridesmaids and controlling grooms. Not surprising then that she’s deeply cynical about happy-ever-afters, especially since her own first love ended in tragedy.
When handsome girl magnet Ambrose enters her life, Louna won’t take him seriously. But Ambrose hates not getting what he wants and Louna is the girl he’s been waiting for.
Maybe it’s not too late for a happy ending after all?
I am a huge Sarah Dessen fan. I must have been around 15 or 16 when I read my first Sarah book (I just turned 25. Whaaat?!), it was Just Listen and I fell hard for it. It’s a book about trauma, speaking up and figuring out how to express your emotions – cause if you don’t, they’ll find their own way out regardless – and I identified incredibly strongly with it for reasons I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint until after graduating school, then university and starting my (semi) adulthood (feeling feelings is not a strong point of mine. I would much rather watch excessively violent shows on Netflix than, say, deal with my daddy issues). All of which is to say I LOVE Sarah, I have read all of her books and will continue to do so for as long as she’s writing them. But, fact is, when an author has written 11-some novels, chances are not all of them are going to be 100% for you. I ADORE Just Listen, Saint Anything, This Lullaby and Keeping the Moon, for example, but I have much more lukewarm feelings toward Lock and Key and Someone Like You.
The drawn out point I am ever-so-slowly getting to is that, while the majority of her books are hits, her latest, Once and for All, was a miss – for me, anyways.
Once and for All is a book about weddings and the notion of ‘forever’ love, an idea all of the characters in this novel are somehow sceptical of. It being a Sarah Dessen novel, romance takes centre stage and by the end, all of the now former sceptics are nicely coupled off and at the beginning of their happily ever afters. While I usually enjoy this kind of thing – I am myself a highly sceptical individual who definitely day dreams of being persuaded of the error of my ways – something about the approach in this one felt a little… off, for reasons I will get more into later.
There were aspects of the book I liked a lot – primarily Ambrose, obviously. The funny, sweet talker with commitment issues is totally my type (I mean who isn’t into that, really?). Every moment between Ambrose and Louna went straight to my squishy heart. They reminded me of Rory and Tristan in Gilmore Girls season 1. Ambrose had the kind of swagger typical of a boy in his mid-twenties rather than his teens and a love of dogs that would have endeared him to me immediately even if the rest of his personality weren’t so appealing.
I really liked Louna’s family – also unsurprising as Dessen writes family with empathy and complexity 100% of the time. Louna was raised by a single mum and major straight male-sceptic in the particular way single mothers tend to be (anyone raised by such a woman will know exactly what I’m talking about), and so even as a teen who had never been in love, Louna was going into the romantic arena with a good deal of (largely unearned) scepticism.
As I was definitely the kid who, at the start of secondary school when my classmates started dating would say things like, “psh, that won’t last” as if I were Joan Collins-type old broad smoking in the corner of the bar, and not actually a 13-year-old who believed Janis Ian style black eyeliner was a strong look and one I would likely wear for the rest of my days – this amused me greatly.
But despite all this, Once and for All left me cold. Generally speaking, I’m a huge fan of a happy ending, but I also believe that what that is looks different for everybody. In Once and for All that looked like being in a relationship – for every single character. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that at the beginning of the book, Louna’s mother and her business partner William, were both very happy single. They remain happy in that state until the last quarter of the book, when they suddenly meet people (her, some kind of self-help mogul and him, a cute guy from the deli) and realise that they’re supposed single happiness was a farce, and that being one of a romantically entangled pair is really only the way to go.
And… I don’t think that’s true. The idea this book presented, that long term monogamy is *the* route to happiness, made me uncomfortable. And yes, I know this is the premise of most contemporary YA, and yes, I know it ordinarily doesn’t bother me, but to have every major character in the book come to conclusion that single = unhappy… did not resonate with me. At all. This may have been partly owing to the fact the resolution of the book felt quite rushed anyway, but more broadly it’s that, to me at least, the idea that everyone finds happiness in the same way is incredibly reductive. What I would have really liked from this novel is a much more nuanced portrayal of happiness and the pursuit of it, and unfortunately on this occasion I didn’t get that.
Even though this book was not, ultimately, for me, I still can’t wait to read whatever Sarah does next. Though not everything she writes is completely to my taste, I am a fangirl forever, as far as her writing is concerned.