Ben, in the World [NOOK Book]

Overview

August 2000

Ben, in the World

In The Fifth Child, her most widely acclaimed novel of the past 15 years, Doris Lessing told the story of Ben Lovatt, a physically and mentally deformed boy whose brutal strength and asocial behavior ruptures the circumscribed world of his proper English family. In her new book, Ben, in the World, Lessing continues Ben's story in a powerful, ...

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Ben, in the World

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Overview

August 2000

Ben, in the World

In The Fifth Child, her most widely acclaimed novel of the past 15 years, Doris Lessing told the story of Ben Lovatt, a physically and mentally deformed boy whose brutal strength and asocial behavior ruptures the circumscribed world of his proper English family. In her new book, Ben, in the World, Lessing continues Ben's story in a powerful, spellbinding tale that pits the boy's ageless purity against the opportunism and greed of our time.

As the novel opens, Ben is now 18, essentially homeless and surviving on the streets of London. A poor old woman named Mrs. Biggs has taken pity on the misfit youth, giving him food and shelter. Ben tries to earn his keep but is cheated by the few people who offer him work. When Mrs. Biggs falls ill, Ben leaves her haven and wanders into the city. There he befriends a kindhearted prostitute, Rita, who is drawn to Ben's animal virility and emotional vulnerability. Rita's pimp, Johnston, recognizes an opportunity to exploit this bewildered boy. He devises an elaborate plan using Ben to smuggle drugs into the south of France and then quickly and callously cuts him loose. Left on his own, in a country where he cannot speak the language, Ben captures the attention of an American filmmaker, Alex, who is fascinated by what he perceives to be a primitive man. Planning to feature him in a film, Alex takes Ben along with him to Brazil, where Ben is taken under the wing of another woman, Teresa. Alas, no one can insulate Ben from the fate that must inevitably befall him, from the tragedy that is his life.

Embodying echoes of the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Ben both intrigues and repulses -- and is ultimately rejected by -- all those who encounter him and becomes a symbol for our heartlessly disposable times. Even now, in her 80s, Doris Lessing retains the sharp powers of perception that have informed all her classic works and have made her one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A Review of Ben, in the World

Born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Doris Lessing made her literary debut in 1950 with a novel about interracial tensions in Africa entitled The Grass Is Singing. Since then, Lessing has delivered more than 30 major works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, most notably her massive experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. A common theme threading through her oeuvre, as Lessing herself noted in her 1994 autobiography, Walking in the Shade, is a rejection of "the human condition," which means to "be trapped by circumstances."

Nowhere did she probe the dark contradictions of the human condition more deeply than in The Fifth Child, a short novel about Ben Lovatt, a Neanderthal-like genetic throwback born to "normal" parents in modern-day England. Ben is marked as an outcast from the day of his birth because of his monstrous appearance. "He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown." Then there is the matter of Ben's equally bestial behavior. He terrorizes siblings and kills family pets. He is automatically assumed to be a demon seed and a scourge to society. Although slight, the novel was a taut springboard for Lessing's most pressing concerns—the insurmountable differences between men and women, the bind between the individual and greater society, and how society both celebrates and castigates "the other."

In Ben, in the World, Lessing again takes up the narrative of Ben's life and unsentimentally depicts his education in the ways of the wider world. At 18 he has grown into a werewolf of sorts, hirsute and homeless, renounced by his family. He barks when happy, grunts when annoyed, and dines on small birds. Gainful employment, let alone romance, has proven a challenge. Ironically, Ben winds up with more caretakers as an adult, including Rita, a prostitute who thrills to his animal ways in bed. But although she means well, Rita is the first in a series of people who manipulate Ben for selfish purposes. Construction foremen rely on him for heavy lifting, then cheat him out of his wages; Rita's pimp gives him money and then uses him to smuggle dope to France; a fledgling filmmaker drags Ben into a movie about prehistoric creatures, then cruelly promises to reunite him with similar-looking people. By the novel's end, Ben predictably flees a group of frenzied scientists.

Lessing's genius here is to embody the otherness of Ben's point of view without condescending to him. In unadorned prose, she dramatizes Ben as he wrestles with his animal nature, his need to inflict harm as well as his desire to repress that impulse. In his travels, she writes, Ben "looked hard at faces for that surprised stare that might turn out to be dangerous."

Ben's humanity stands out in sharp relief. Like his caretakers, who congratulate themselves on shepherding him through the world, Ben gets lonely and hungry, and he misses his family. In the end, like them, he commits desperate acts because he feels the sorrow of consciousness, "the knowledge of his aloneness."

In The Fifth Child, Ben, like the monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, reflects the hubris of his creators; in this sequel he becomes, like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, a "perpetual exile." And as with Burroughs's apeman, Ben's tragedy is that his caretakers are too busy exploiting him to realize they can learn from his predicament. Thanks to Lessing's deep understanding of Ben's world, however, it will be difficult for readers to make a similar oversight.

John Freeman


About the Author

Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than 30 books—novels, short stories, reportage, poems, and plays—and is considered among the most important writers of the postwar era.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "clear and horrific" sequel to Lessing's best-selling The Fifth Child "inspires true sympathy for her less-than-appealing Ben in this fish-out- of-water story. The reader is left wondering who the true savage is - modern man or the primitive?" "Another of Lessing's indictments of our species." "Surprisingly clumsy plotting for a writer of Lessing's stature." "It just didn't grab me."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When it appeared more than a decade ago, The Fifth Child, Lessing's powerful novel about a boy who was a freakish throwback to a primitive stage of existence, was justly praised as a shocking and memorable speculation about what happens when society is confronted with a human anomaly. This sequel continues Ben Lovatt's story, but with decidedly inferior narrative resources. Ben has run away from his upper-middle-class British family, who were humiliated by this genetic aberration. He is now 18, but with his fearsomely developed chest and arms, his squat and hairy body and his feral face, he appears to frightened observers to be a man in his 30s. Ironically, Ben himself is terrified of society. Unable to read, to handle money, to decipher even the simplest of situations, he is helpless, lonely and desperate. He realizes he must control the blood-red tides of rage that engulf his brain, lest he kill the adversaries who torment him. But in a series of lurid adventures in a plot that seems to have been made up in fits and starts, Ben is betrayed by nearly everyone. Only three women are kind to him: one is old and terminally ill, the other two are prostitutes. People who have power and money abuse him, notably an American scientist doing research in Rio de Janeiro, where bewildered Ben has been transported by a down-and-out filmmaker, who picked him up in Paris after Ben was used as a dupe in a cocaine smuggling operation. It's obvious that Lessing is making a social statement about how intellectuals acting in the name of art or science cruelly exploit simple people who can't defend themselves. The plot achieves bathetic melodrama in the deserted mining country of interior Brazil, where poor Ben, "knowing [he is] alone, used but then abandoned,'' meets his grisly fate and brings this soap-operatic story to its long-foreshadowed, tragic close. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
This is a sequel to Lessing's acclaimed Fifth Child, which featured Ben Lovatt. Ben's abnormal appearance and strength distinguishes him from other people. Rejected by his older siblings, he is now homeless in London. He has been fed and sheltered by the sickly Mrs. Biggs, but when she enters the hospital, Ben ends up staying with a prostitute named Rita. Rita's boyfriend enlists Ben's unknowing assistance to transport drugs to Paris, where he meets Alex and is taken to Brazil to make a movie. There, Ben meets a scientist who wants to run genetic tests on him. Ben is treated inhumanely but is excited when he hears that he may meet more people like himself. The ending is, predictably, tragic. Powerful writing from an author noted by for dealing effectively with difficult human issues, this book admirably continues Ben's story. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/00.]--Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., MD Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Michael Pye
...what Ben is, mostly, is a character who comes wrestling and reeking off the page, a monster whose humanity we must recognize when we least want to. We start off identifying with the nice family; we end up wanting to see the world through those goblin eyes. So Ben, in the World, which tells his other story, the one that belongs to him alone, is a most unusual kind of sequel: the absolutely necessary one...At times, Lessing's spare, sharp prose lets you see things as Ben sees them, as you have not seen things before. The book shares that uncanny effect with the best fiction.
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
...slightly surreal, but moving...Lessing's unsentimental yet excruciating moral fable forces us to accept the Lovatts' dilemma as our own.
Kirkus Reviews
Far from resting on her laurels, Lessing—who has been publishing for 50 years, and goes from strength to strength—offers this bleak monitory sequel to her harrowing The Fifth Child (1988).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061967870
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 345,870
  • File size: 241 KB

Meet the Author

Doris  Lessing
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, the James Tait Black Prize for best biography, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.

Biography

"Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers," Lesley Hazleton once observed. But the Nobel Prize-winning Lessing, whose classic novel The Golden Notebook was embraced as a feminist icon, has seldom told her followers exactly what they wanted to hear. For much of her career, she has frustrated readers' expectations and thwarted would-be experts on her work, penning everything from traditional narratives to postmodern novels to mystic fables.

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father made an unsuccessful attempt to farm maize. Though she loved living on the farm, her family life was often tense and unhappy. Lessing married at the age of 20, but three years later, feeling stifled by colonial life and increasingly distressed by the racism of her society, she joined the Communist Party, "because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives."

Soon after that, she left her husband and first two children to marry fellow Communist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son. They divorced, and she took her son with her to England, where she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, to high acclaim. After several more novels, including the semi-autobiographical series Children of Violence, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a postmodern, fragmentary narrative about a writer's search for identity. The Golden Notebook gained a passionate following in the feminist movement and "left its mark upon the ideas and feelings of a whole generation of women," as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.

To Lessing's dismay, she was frequently cited as a "feminist writer" after that. Yet as Diane Johnson pointed out in a 1978 review of Stories, Lessing "also understands men, politics, social class, striving, religion, loneliness and lust." Johnson added: "Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov -- a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types."

But Lessing, who once called realist fiction "the highest form of prose writing," soon launched into a science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which baffled many of her fans. Lessing used the term "space fiction" for the series, which recounts human history from the points of view of various extraterrestrial beings. Though Lessing gained some new readers with her Canopus series, her early admirers were relieved when she came back to Earth in The Fifth Child, the story of a monstrous child born to ordinary suburban parents, which Carolyn Kizer deemed "a minor classic." Later novels like Mara and Dann included elements of fantasy and science fiction, but recently, with the publication of The Sweetest Dream, Lessing has returned to domestic fiction in the realist mode, which many critics still see as her best form.

Throughout her life, Lessing has been drawn to systems for improving human experience -- first Marxism, then the psychiatry of R. D. Laing, then Sufi mysticism. But her yearning for a single, transcendent truth coexists with a sharp awareness of the contradictory mix of vanities, passions, and aggressions that make up most human lives. As Margaret Drabble noted, Lessing is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand."

Good To Know

Lessing's African stories painted a grim picture of white colonialism and the oppression of black Africans, and in 1956, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. In 1995, she was able to visit her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, where her works are now acclaimed for the same content that was once condemned.

Though she was briefly allied with the Communist Party in Salisbury, Lessing has frequently insisted that the picture of her as a political activist is exaggerated. "I am always being described as having views that I never had in my life," she once told the Guardian. She has, however, been an outspoken critic of the racial politics of South Africa, and she once turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there is no British Empire.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for new writers to get published, Lessing sent a manuscript to her publishers under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her British publisher turned it down, as did several other prominent publishers (though her American editor detected the ruse and accepted the book). The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of Jane Somers, to little fanfare and mixed critical reviews. Lessing followed it with a sequel, If the Old Could..., before revealing her identity as the author of both.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Doris May Tayler (birth name), Jane Somers (pseudonym)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1919
    2. Place of Birth:
      Persia (now Iran)
    1. Date of Death:
      November 17, 2013
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

Ben, In the World

Chapter One

'How old are you?'

'Eighteen.'

This reply did not come at once because Ben was afraid of what he knew was going to happen now, which was that the young man behind the glass protecting him from the public set down his biro on the form he was filling in, and then, with a look on his face that Ben knew only too well, inspected his client. He was allowing himself amusement that was impatient, but it was not quite derision. He was seeing a short, stout, or at least heavily built man — he was wearing a jacket too big for him — who must be at least forty. And that face! It was a broad face, with strongly delineated features, a mouth stretched in a grin — what did he think was so bloody funny? — a broad nose with flaring nostrils, eyes that were greenish, with sandy lashes, under bristly sandy brows. He had a short neat pointed beard that didn't fit with the face. His hair was yellow and seemed — like his grin — to shock and annoy, long, and falling forward in a slope, and in stifflocks on either side, as if trying to caricature a fashionable cut. To cap it all, he was using a posh voice; was he taking the mickey? The clerk was going in for this minute inspection because he was discommoded by Ben to the point of feeling angry. He sounded peevish when he said, 'You can't be eighteen. Come on, what's your real age?'

Ben was silent. He was on the alert, every little bit of him, knowing there was danger. He wished he had not come to this place, which could close its walls around him. He was listening to the noises from outside, for reassurance from his normality. Some pigeons were conversing in a plane tree on the pavement, and he was with them, thinking how they sat gripping twigs with pink claws that he could feel tightening around his own finger; they were contented, with the sun on their backs. Inside here, were sounds that he could not understand until he had isolated each one. Meanwhile the young man in front of him was waiting, his hand holding the biro and fiddling it between his fingers. A telephone rang just beside him. On either side of him were several young men and women with that glass in front of them. Some used instruments that clicked and chattered, some stared at screens where words appeared and went. Each of these noisy machines Ben knew was probably hostile to him. Now he moved slightly to one side, to get rid of the reflections on the glass that were bothering him, and preventing him from properly seeing this person who was angry with him.

'Yes. I am eighteen,' he said.

He knew he was. When he had gone to find his mother, three winters ago — he did not stay because his hated brother Paul had come in — she had written in large words on a piece of card:

Your name is Ben Lovatt.
Your mother's name is Harriet Lovatt.
Your father's name is David Lovatt.
You have four brothers and sisters, Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul. They are older than you.
You are fifteen years old.

On the other side of the card had been:

You were born ..............
Your home address is ............

This card had afflicted Ben with such a despair of rage that he took it from his mother, and ran out of the house. He scribbled over the name Paul, first. Then, the other siblings. Then, the card falling to the floor and picked up showing the reverse side, he scribbled with his black biro over all the words there, leaving only a wild mess of lines.

That number, fifteen, kept coming up in questions that were always — so he felt — being put to him. 'How old are you?' Knowing it was so important, he remembered it, and when the year turned around at Christmas, which no one could miss, he added a year. Now I am sixteen. Now I am seventeen. Now, because a third winter has gone, I am eighteen.

'OK, then, when were you born?'

With every day since he had scribbled with that angry black pen all over the back of the card he had understood better what a mistake he had made. And he had destroyed the whole card, in a culminating fit of rage, because now it was useless. He knew his name. He knew 'Harriet' and 'David' and did not care about his brothers and sisters who wished he was dead.

He did not remember when he was born.

Listening, as he did, to every sound, he heard how the noises in that office were suddenly louder, because in a line of people waiting outside one of the glass panels, a woman had begun shouting at the clerk who was interviewing her, and because of this anger released into the air, all the lines began moving and shuffling, and other people were muttering, and then said aloud, like a barking, short angry words like Bastards, Shits — and these were words that Ben knew very well, and he was afraid of them. He felt the cold of fear moving down from the back of his neck to his spine.

The man behind him was impatient, and said, 'I haven't got all day if you have.'

'When were you born? What date?'

'I don't know,' said Ben.

And now the clerk put an end to it, postponing the problem, with, 'Go and find your birth certificate. Go to the Records Office. That'll settle it. You don't know your last employer. You don't have an address. You don't know your date of birth.'

With these words his eyes left Ben's face, and he nodded at the man behind to come forward, displacing Ben, who went straight out of that office, feeling as if all the hairs of his body, the hairs on his head, were standing straight up, he was so trapped and afraid. Outside was a pavement, with people, a little street, full of cars, and under the plane tree where the pigeons were moving about, cooing and complacent, a bench. He sat on it at the other end from a young woman who gave him a glance, but then another, frowned, and went off, looking back at him with that look on her face which Ben knew and expected. She was not afraid of him, but thought that she might be soon. Her body was all haste and apprehension, like one escaping. She went into a shop, glancing back...

Ben, In the World. Copyright © by Doris Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

IntroductionWhat are the prerequisites for survival in the modern world? What would happen if a fully-grown man of limited mental faculties, but strong of body and with a good spirit, were to engage with the world completely unassisted? How would a man cope with life in the western world if he couldn't make rational decisions, and also could not trust anybody? In Ben, In the World, the sequel to The Fifth Child, we are given the story of what happens when Ben Lovatt, the main character of both novels, is released into the world to fend for himself. The story crosses national borders, continents, and social classes, and the result is profound -- for while the reader is presented with the complexities of coping with the modern world as a person of insufficient understanding, Ben Lovatt also acts as a touchstone of human nature globally. Through him and the people he encounters, we discover which qualities inspire sympathy, and a whole spectrum of emotions, ranging from ambition and pride to indignation and fear. The all-too-common willingness to exploit the disadvantaged and the limitations on the human capacity for sustaining concern for others through difficult situations is the unavoidable theme of this novel. And yet there are also those with beautiful, humane and kind qualities, people he bumps into by accident. They manage to peer through Ben's peculiar appearance and see a person with feelings that require the same caution and consideration as any person with more normal faculties. The differences could hardly be more explicit, and so the book consistently operates on a highly philosophical plane. Rich with twists of plot and literaryintrigue, Ben, In the World is an exceptional work of fiction. However, the novel manages to ask very fundamental questions about life and society: What is human nature? How are our behaviors and motivations driven by evolution? A driving force in the novel is the very lack of clarity surrounding Ben's apparent mental deficiencies. Much comes from a close third person perspective -- we are aware of his feelings as they come and go, but their origins remain as mysterious as our own. The result is a richly textured and engaging tale of the scarcely explored and often unintelligible qualities of the human spirit. Discussion Questions
  • At the very beginning of the text is a note from the author explaining the origin of "the cages." As a result, the reader is aware of something grotesque that is going to be encountered throughout the reading of the book, and the cages do not emerge in the plot until near the end. Do you think it was the author's intention to influence the reader in this manner, or was the note a matter of cultural sensitivity? Did this influence your reading, and if so, how?
  • The narrator has a tendency to rush ahead to the end of various plot lines. We learn early on that Johnston and Rita will both survive well and be successful, and also that the girl in Alex's film will become a star. When Teresa and Alfredo meet, their happy future marriage is disclosed almost immediately. How does this affect your sense of the plot, and of your feelings toward the protagonist, whose future remains unknown?
  • If, as we are led to believe, the nature of Ben's deficiency is that he is indeed a throwback of sorts, a fully emotional human being but of the kind that walked the earth perhaps a hundred thousand years ago -- what does this indicate about how humans have changed?
  • Ben is incapable of coping with life, and yet often understands situations more than people give him credit for. It is as though his emotions overtake him from time to time in ways that they don't other people -- particularly fear and anger. How would you describe the precise nature of Ben's mental deficiency? Does he have more than one?
  • So many of the people Ben encounters are opportunists who seek to use him to their own benefit -- Johnston with the drug smuggling, Alex with his film, and, worst of all, the American scientist. Is this a jaded narrative, or a realistic one? How does this story reflect on human nature?
  • Of the people who are the most concerned for Ben's welfare -- Ellen and Rita in London, and Teresa in Buenos Aires -- each is female and has had a difficult life. What is the narrative position on the motivations of men versus women? Also, what does this say of how ethics relate to social class?
  • Teresa's closing statement at the end of the book carries a strong judgment, one that has all the more gravity because it ends the story. Why precisely are "we" glad not to have to think about Ben? Why is thinking about the likes of Ben a burden to us? About the Author: Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than 30 books -- novels, short stories, reportage, poems, and plays -- and is considered among the most important writers of the postwar era.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2002

    Lost & lonely

    Ben is like a forgotten child. Lost, Lonely, and full of rage. The emotions evoked by Ben are quite powerful. In this novel we see the world from Ben's point of view, and come to understand the unbearable loneliness born of difference. Doris Lessing has created a unique story line mixed with many emotions. It was stunning and a powerful book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2000

    Eve better than The Fifth Child

    A real page-turner. It is an exciting, emotional and powerful book, filled with the truth of human nature and its effect on those who do not 'fit in.' Ben does not fit in and his story is both fascinating and moving. A completely different book than 'The First Child,' this new book stands well on its own and is one of Doris Lessing's very best.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2011

    Ben, in the world

    After teading the fifth child, i was very disappointed with this book. It could stand on its own, but in my opinion, the story felt like the author was on a desperate mission to write a follow up story about ben.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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