Once and For All: 5.0

Once and For All
Author: Sarah Dessen
Rating: 5/5

TRIGGER WARNING: this book lightly touches on gun violence

“As we walked behind the counter, with the twins in tow, the salesgirl was still focused on her computer, and I averted my eyes so I wouldn’t see the screen.  But I knew what was most likely there, as well as to come.  A long shot of a flat, nondescript building, maybe with a mascot on the side.  People streaming out doors, hands over their heads.  The embraces of the survivors, mouths open, caught in wails we were lucky not to hear.  And, in the worst case, pictures of kids just like the ones in my own yearbook, lined up neatly, already ghosts.”

– Sarah Dessen, Once and For All

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking:
“Lissa, What on earth makes this book so special that you gave it a perfect rating? You’re usually so picky.”

* Ahem*

man standing at a center of stages on podium surrounded by people
Photo by McKylan Mullins on Pexels.com

Ms. Dessen managed to craft one of those rare stories so compelling that, if there were any stylistic or grammatical errors, I did not notice. I read this book in one night, because I simply couldn’t put it down. Yes, I’m Exhausted. Yes, it was worth.

book girl indoors lampshade
Photo by Kha Ruxury on Pexels.com

Louna, the protagonist, struggles to move on in her life after the sudden death of a loved one.  She works part-time for her mom’s wedding planning business, and she goes to school.  Her best friend Jilly has to cajole her into coming out of her shell to socialize (ie. dating.)  The son of an important client, Ambrose, is driving said client crazy, so Louna’s mom hires him for the summer.  Louna and Ambrose become close, etc.  It’s another teenage love story.  Except that it’s not.  At least not for me.

While Ms. Dessen’s writing style certainly made the story a smooth read, this particular novel reached the pinnacle of my rating scale because I personally believe that this is the type of story that we need in YA right now.  There are so many issues that teenagers deal with that are taboo to talk about.  What happens to the survivors of school shootings? With the loved ones of the deceased? How are they supposed to move the most traumatic event of their young lives?  We see the power of a movement in The Hate U Give, but Louna’s grief was powerful because it was just her.  Sometimes you don’t have a deeper movement to fight for.  Sometimes it is enough of a fight to get out of bed every day.  To do normal things like go out with friends or date.  Unlike other YA novels that deal with death and grief, Once and For All shows the aftermath a year later.

Dealing with loss is a difficult concept at any age, but death is still a foreign concept of teenagers.  It hits so much harder when they experience it.  Louna, the protagonist, bears the mental scars of her experience. Her interactions with other characters demonstrate how jaded she’s become, and she has every right to be. Death can be just as scarring to those it leaves behind.

The subtlety which Ms. Dessen expertly uses to allude to Louna’s experience makes the story line more powerful, because it allows anyone who has experienced loss at a young age to relate to Louna’s story.

I was crying quietly while reading, because being able to relate hit me SO HARD. Throughout my freshman year of college seven of my friends from high school passed away. The death I struggled with the most though, had been my theater “mentee” throughout high school. It was his senior year and then suddenly his friend drove around a curve too fast and he was gone. I remember standing in my boyfriend’s kitchen, listening to his mom read out the names of the passengers and their conditions. Her voice was sad, because it was a tragedy, but relieved because she didn’t think we knew any of them.

I remember my knees giving out and sobs wracking my body. Randomly bursting into tears any time something reminded me of Andrew. I remember feeling so alone. This book brought back all of that, with a cathartic release that I didn’t realize I still needed after five years. It would have been easy to write about how this story made me laugh and feel giddy, how Ms. Dessen has mastered the craftsmanship of an epic summer romance, and all of those things are true. this book is romantic and haunting, hilarious and heart breaking, but the real magic in Once and For All does not lay in its romance, the real magic in Once and for All comes the ability to make the reader feel like maybe, just maybe, they’re not alone.

NOTE:  I’ve seen several other reviews where people criticize Louna’s grief as an inauthentic device to further the plot.  It’s important to note that the events that unfold in this book occur a year after her loss.  When something traumatic, like the loss of a loved one, occurs, time helps to dull the grief.  Every once in awhile, it still hits you though.  You’ll catch a certain scent, or see a stranger that looks a little too familiar, and it will hit you in the gut all over again.  Grief is a wound sustained in an emotional battlefield.  It shreds through you, and even after it heals it will throb on a rainy day to remind you of its existence.  This story is special because it deals with moving on.  It shows that it’s possible.  It provides hope for those still struggling.

Do you agree?  Comment below!

Want to change my mind?  No. Not on this one.

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