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Book Review

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Louna is the 17-year-old daughter of Natalie Barrett, one of the premier wedding planners in Lakeview, California. As such, Louna has spent much of her free time helping her mom pull off some of the most elaborate celebrations in the area. Her parents’ own marriage had fallen apart after three years, when her father left their hippie lifestyle and returned to his own family to run a Porsche dealership. He died in an accident several years later.

When he left, Louna’s mom took a job at the registry department of a store in Lakeview, so she could support her daughter. There, she met William, a homosexual co-worker with a gift for working with people. Soon a partnership was born. With a loan from William’s mother, they started a wedding planning business.

Louna’s best friend is her neighbor, Jilly. The antithesis of Louna’s story, Jilly’s parents have been happily married for many years, run a food truck business together and have five children. Jilly must regularly baby-sit her siblings, as her parents are often working. She never seems to mind, though, and seeks to live life to the fullest. As they will be graduating soon, Jilly pushes Louna to get back into the dating scene before they leave for college.

As Louna helps her mother with a bride’s third wedding, she gets an emergency text. The bride’s son is missing, and he is supposed to walk his mother down the aisle. Louna eventually finds the young man, Ambrose, in the parking lot flirting with a girl.

Louna escorts him back to the ceremony. Later, as the celebration is in full swing, Ambrose asks Louna to dance. She refuses, as it is against company policy for the help to dance with the guests. Although he asks her several times, she still says no. The incident reminds her of another time, a year ago, when another boy, Ethan, asked her to dance, and she refused. Later that night, however, she met up with him down at the beach and that meeting changed her life.

Louna meets up with Ambrose again when his sister, Bee, becomes one of her mother’s clients. He comes late to one of her consultations and promptly breaks William’s tape dispenser, causing his sister to dissolve into tears. Instead of being angry, Louna’s mother offers him a job, hoping she can teach the young man some responsibility and keep him from ruining his sister’s wedding.

Louna is horrified by the development. The last thing she wants before she goes to college is to baby-sit Ambrose. Although annoying, she is soon surprised by his compassionate nature. He saves her from being groped at a party and rescues a dog from an abusive owner. He names the dog Ira, and it follows him everywhere.

Although impulsive, Ambrose has empathy enough not to ask Louna about her former boyfriend when it is obvious she does not want to talk about him. Ambrose thinks it is because they had a bad break-up, but Ethan was killed in a school shooting.

Ambrose proves to be a competent employee as the summer progresses, and Louna finds herself strangely attracted to him, although she will not admit her feelings, or let go of her grief. She is also regularly reminded of Ambrose’s roguish ways, as each day he is driven to work or taken out to eat by a different girl. Ambrose defends his behavior by saying first dates are the best. They are full of potential and none of the substance that makes a relationship complicated.

Louna and Ambrose make a bet to see whose type of dating is superior. Louna will agree to date at least two different men a week until the end of the summer. Ambrose has to date one girl for the seven remaining weeks. Whoever wins the bet gets to pick the other’s next date.

Jilly is thrilled as the bet means she and Louna can double date, but the dates are not as exciting as either would hope. However, when Louna and Ambrose must pose as an engaged couple for a photoshoot for her mother, Louna is surprised to find herself feeling sparks of attraction for him. When she, Jilly and Ambrose attend a party later that night, Louna is a little sad when Ambrose begins a relationship with a girl named Lauren. He starts humming at work. Jilly also has a new boyfriend, and even Louna can tell that Jilly is in love.

Louna remembers the events of the past year as news of another school shooting is shown on the television. She recalls the one perfect night she spent with Ethan. They walked along the beach, shared pie and some of their deepest secrets with each other. Louna lost her virginity that night underneath a pier. They talked on a beach chair until Ethan’s father called to tell him to get ready to leave for home. For months they called and texted each other every day, making plans for when they could next get together over vacations from school. Tragically, before they could see each other again, he was one of seven students killed in a shooting that occurred at his school. Louna spent a week in bed, grieving, and is still trying to recover from the loss.

Louna meets up with an old friend at a wedding she is working. They strike up a conversation, and Ben asks if she would be interested in going out sometime. As Louna still needs to go on dates to win her bet with Ambrose, she agrees, but the two can never seem to get together.

William gets Louna’s mother to agree to go on vacation with him to a tropical island as the wedding they had booked the following weekend falls through. Louna and Ambrose work to store away all the items purchased for the wedding. Lauren and her cousin, Maya, stop in to visit Ambrose. Maya is getting married the following day in a small ceremony. But as she, Lauren and Ambrose begin talking about the event, it is obvious Maya would love to have something a little more formal than vows in a coffee shop.

Soon Ambrose is volunteering to set up the event in his backyard where they can decorate with lights and have food catered. Of course, Louna is soon dragged in to help as Ambrose gets in over his head. She gives advice about appetizers and winds up bringing tables to the venue.

The stress of setting up the venue takes a toll on Lauren, and she begins to take it out on Ambrose. He and Louna make a run to the dollar store to get plates, utensils and tablecloths. While there, Louna experiences the sparks of attraction again. Before they can act on their feelings, Lauren calls, insisting Ambrose return to help with the wedding. Louna asks Jilly and her boyfriend to come with their food trucks to provide the meal for the guests.

Later, Ambrose approaches Louna to apologize. He has talked with Jilly and learned about what happened to Ethan. This angers Louna as she does not want his pity. Ambrose tries to explain that he has wanted to date her for a long time, but he thinks she isn't ready to hear the news. She leaves the wedding and meets up with Ben. She and Ben immediately start to date exclusively.

After several weeks apart, Ambrose and Louna work at a wedding together and both apologize for not speaking earlier about what happened between them. They part as friends. A few days later, Louna’s mom prepares a special birthday dinner for her. She met a man while on vacation, and he also will be attending the party. William’s new boyfriend and Ben will also help Louna celebrate her day. Louna finds out that Ambrose delivered her birthday cake, but left before she saw him.

When Ben arrives, he apologizes for being late because of an accident. A dog ran into the road, and a man was hit running after it. Louna’s stomach drops as she believes it to be Ambrose and his dog. She hurries to the scene of the accident. The police force her back to the side of the road, and she collapses on the grass.

Moments later, Ambrose’s dog comes and licks her face. Looking up, she sees Ambrose. She stands and draws him in for a passionate kiss. She knows she has been in love with him for some time, and she is ready to admit it to him. They begin a relationship before Louna leaves for college.

Ambrose intends to enroll in a community college and continue to work for Louna’s mother. Although Louna will never forget Ethan, she is looking forward to what the future holds with Ambrose.

Christian Beliefs

Louna knows that some people in difficult situations ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” She asks herself what her mother would do. Natalie says that finding her calling as a wedding planning at the age of 22 felt like a blessing. And blessings should not be taken for granted. Louna tells her that even God took a day off from work. She tells William she will pray for the surly bartenders at a reception. Maya wears her grandmother’s gold cross at her wedding.

Other Belief Systems

When someone lights a candle, Ambrose blows it out and makes a wish.

Authority Roles

Louna's mother raised her after her father abandoned the family. Natalie left her hippie lifestyle and found a job at a department store so she could provide for her daughter. Louna refers to her mom's business partner, William, as her godfather. He provides the emotional support Louna needs, and her mother is the strength in their family. Both love Louna unconditionally.


Profanity includes WTF, the f-word with ing, a--hole, h---bent, d--n and s---. God is used alone and with forbid, thank, sake and oh my. Jesus is used as an exclamation. Other objectionable words include sucks, c--ky and pi--y.

Although not graphically described, Louna’s boyfriend, Ethan, was killed in a school shooting. Louna learned about it from social media and the news. Another school shooting occurs and sparks her memories.


A bride and groom are seen kissing as their limo drives away. Louna dances with a boy she does not know at a party. He forcefully kisses her, even though she has tried to pull away from him. On a first date, another young man kisses her. She is disconnected from it, but comments about his wriggling tongue. She keeps up the pretense long enough so as not to be rude, then says goodnight. She passionately kisses Ambrose when she learns he has not been killed in an accident.

Louna comments that Jilly’s parents are always busy, including busy procreating. Throughout the novel, Louna thinks back on the one, and only, night she shared with Ethan. She details how he tasted and what she felt when they kissed. They kissed numerous times over the course of the night. Louna lost her virginity under a pier. The event is not graphically detailed, but she does say that it hurt a little and that she cried afterward while Ethan held her.

William is a homosexual. Louna mentions him only having one short-term boyfriend, the divorced father of one of her classmates. He seems to keep his relationships to the few times he goes on vacation with friends. He admits to Louna that he had one date with the employee behind the meat counter at a gourmet supermarket. At the end of the book, he invites this same man to Louna’s birthday dinner.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Alcohol is prevalent throughout the book as many of the weddings celebrate with open bars and champagne. William and Natalie always toast at the end of an event and make a guess as to how long the marriage will last. Louna attends several parties where beer and alcoholic punch is served to under-aged guests. She seldom takes more than a sip and is never drunk. Ambrose talks about doing a shot with a girl he has just met.

Drugs: A man stoned on psychedelic mushrooms married Louna's parents. Louna mentions a classmate who always comes stoned to school events.

Smoking: One of the boys that Louna dates smokes a cigarette.

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


Sarah Dessen






Record Label



Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC


On Video

Year Published





We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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