Once and For All, by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen was among the first YA authors I read, and her books were a staple of summer reading. I spent countless days at the beach reading staples like This Lulluby, The Truth about Forever, Lock and Key, and so on. I think she was the first author I read who had a literary universe in play, in which characters from her other books made appearances. Dessen is hailed as the queen of contemporary YA, and I’ll never deny her power to make an ordinary story with ordinary characters compelling, but with that in mind…let’s talk about Once and For All.

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Seventeen-year-old Louna Barrett works with her mother’s wedding planning company, where she’s been partial to all kinds of marital triumphs and plunders. But her life changes when Ambrose, the womanizing brother of her mother’s latest client, is hired for the summer, not because of his talents but just so he is out of the way. Ambrose is afraid of commitment, and Louna is jaded from seeing so many third weddings. Do you think they’ll be together by the end of this rollicking summer of making memories?

I was honestly tempted to not tell you the synopsis of this story as is, but rather how it fits into a formula, and anyone who has read Dessen’s work from the beginning can attest to this. Not that formulas are bad, necessarily—they’re a wonderful tool to teach basic storytelling—but they come at the expense of surprise. With each book, I know I’ll get the following: a jaded young woman with some issue, whether family- or inner-related; some quirky friends; a love interest with whom she’ll have a dramatic falling out with, but will still kiss by the end; brief meditations on life lesson learned; pretty little bow on the last page. Having been proved time after time that these come with the Dessen package, I’ve been hesitant since Saint Anything to continue with Dessen. And yet…

I cannot deny that Dessen writes a compelling narrative, but what makes her interesting to me is her mastery of detail. Every little character or event is in the story for a reason. You know that somehow the bride that Louna comforts at the beginning will come back into play. Somehow, that little dog that Ambrose picks off the street will be a plot device in the climax. Nothing is ever insignificant to the final outcome, and it’s fascinating trying to guess just what character or object is going to serve which purpose.

I cannot think of a single Dessen book I haven’t liked in some small measure, and this book is no exception. I just think I should come out and say that, in another small measure, the Dessen formula is becoming really apparent. Perhaps I am merely outgrowing the stories she tells, or I have been reading her too long. I will continue to stress her talent as a writer, but at the same time, I will begin to humbly beg her to try a different avenue. For as Louna laments in Once and For All, you shouldn’t expect too much from people, but it’s not the same as not wanting to be surprised.

For someone who is just dipping their feet into Sarah Dessen’s world, this is as good a book as any to begin, but for seasoned readers, getting a copy isn’t a high priority: this one won’t change your life in a hurry.

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