Language of Secrets

Language of Secrets

4.2 24
by Dianne Dixon

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From a fresh and exciting new voice in women's fiction, The Language of Secrets unflinchingly examines the lifelong repercussions of a father's betrayal.

Justin Fisher has a successful career as the manager of a luxury hotel, a lovely wife, and a charming young son. While all signs point to a bright future, Justin can no longer ignore the hole


From a fresh and exciting new voice in women's fiction, The Language of Secrets unflinchingly examines the lifelong repercussions of a father's betrayal.

Justin Fisher has a successful career as the manager of a luxury hotel, a lovely wife, and a charming young son. While all signs point to a bright future, Justin can no longer ignore the hole in his life left by his estranged family. When he finally gathers the courage to reconnect with his troubled past, Justin is devastated to learn that his parents have passed away. And a visit to the cemetery brings the greatest shock of all—next to the graves of his father and mother sits a smaller tombstone for a three-year-old boy: a boy named Thomas Justin Fisher.

What follows is an extraordinary journey as Justin struggles with issues of his own identity and pieces together the complex and heartbreaking truth about his family. With great skill and care, Dianne Dixon explores the toll that misunderstandings, blame, and resentment can take on a family. But it is the intimate details of family life—a mother's lullaby for her son, a father's tragic error in judgment—that make this novel so exceptional and an absolute must for reading groups everywhere.

The Language of Secrets is the story of an unspeakable loss born of human frailty and an ultimate redemption born of human courage.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A story of mystery, betrayal, and family tragedy, Dixon's debut novel, despite its creative story line, falls short in execution. After living in London for a decade, 33-year-old Justin Fisher returns to Southern California with his wife and young son to reconnect with the family he hasn't spoken to in years. The rub: he can't remember much of his childhood, or even why he's kept himself at such a distance. Soon after arriving, he learns his parents are dead, and upon visiting their graves, he discovers a tombstone with his name on it indicating he died at age four. As Justin searches his foggy memories for the truth about his past, the narrative skips back in time to fill in the holes with the tale of Justin's mother and how her relationship with three men in college dictates her future. Though there's a payoff in the surprise ending, the plot is painfully overeventful—Justin's mother's story often reads like outtakes from a soap opera—and Dixon's prose struggles to carry the narrative . (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
In scriptwriter Dixon's first novel, a man must confront the gaping holes in his childhood memories once he becomes a husband and father. Working in hotel management in London, Justin Fisher never thinks much about why he has lost contact with his family in California. Then in 2005 he accepts a job in Santa Monica. Taking his wife Amy and baby to visit his parents at the Fisher family home at 822 Lima St. in nearby Sierra Madre, he is shocked to discover that his father has died, and that no one remembers Justin. He is even more shocked at the cemetery when he finds a gravestone marked with his name, and claiming that he died at age three. Cut to 822 Lima St. in the 1970s: Caroline Fisher has a brief affair with a friend of her husband Robert and becomes pregnant. But Caroline, the insecure product of a broken home, is desperate to keep her marriage together for the sake of her two daughters. When Robert discovers three-year-old Justin is not his son and goes behind Caroline's back to get rid of him, Caroline feels helpless to stop him. She never forgives Robert for secretly giving Justin away but stays married for the sake of her daughters, who innocently see Robert as the victimized spouse. Back in the present, adult Justin is increasingly troubled by his inability to connect his disjointed memories of childhood into a whole. Through therapy, he begins to remember not only his first three years but the rest of his childhood: being lovingly cared for by a red-haired woman who called him TJ until a car accident took her away when he was five, then growing up in foster care. Finally he remembers the terrible third trauma that caused him to forget so much. As his memory returns, he and Amyface a crisis in their marriage. Dixon writes convincing prose, particularly dialogue, but the plot, with its pointed references to Dissociative Identity Disorder, has a manufactured quality.
From the Publisher
“Lovely, compelling. . . . The Language of Secrets explores the ramifications of loss, the aftermath of tragedy, and the sometimes terrible cost a child can pay for a parent’s guilt.” —Kristin Hannah  

The Language of Secrets is a psychological mystery with emotional underpinnings that will have you puzzled and intrigued right up to the moment Dixon’s sleight of hand is revealed.” —Sue Grafton 
“Captivating. . . . Fascinating, relaxing, and fun to read.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“This year’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and a perennial book club favorite. . . . An absorbing, provocative and satisfying read from the first page.” —The Huffington Post
“Suspenseful. . . . Dixon is an experienced screenwriter who knows how to . . . move the story along.” —The Boston Globe

“An intriguing mystery that strings the reader along to the very end. . . . Fascinating. . . . Dixon has a wonderful way with words that will inspire readers to stay up long past their bedtimes.  This one is sure to be a hit with anyone who picks it up.” —Sacramento Book Review

“A mystery wrapped in a family saga with a dark psychological undertow. . . . The Language of Secrets is a taut and well-told tale of distorted love and a lack of candor, which offers searing insight into the emotions of a child who was abandoned and abused.” —Pasadena Weekly

“Dixon writes convincing prose, particularly dialogue.” —Kirkus Reviews

The Language of Secrets is a tightly wound mystery. . . . Grabs you immediately. . . . A twisted and complex tale.” —Midwest Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


822 Lima Street, Summer 2005


As Justin was bringing the car to a stop in front of the house on Lima Street, Amy reached for his hand. He pulled away--making a quick, unnecessary adjustment to his shirt colloar. He didn't want her to know he was trembing.

This complicated place in which he'd spent his childhood looked deceptively serene. Like an old-fashioned summer house where wood floors are polished to a warm glow by small bare feet, rooms are filled with cool breezes, and the jigsaw puzzles inevitably have missing pieces. Justin's memory was a lot like one of those puzzles. It, too, had missing pieces--blank spaces where important parts of his past should have been. It was bizarre. It was the truth. And he could no longer ignore it.

"Do you want me to come?" Amy asked. "Or to wait?"

He wanted both. He wanted neither. What he said was, "I want it to be tomorrow. Or an hour from now. I just want for this to be over."

Justin had ceased dealing with this house more than a decade ago, but in all the discarded years, he'd never forgotten its details: the perfumed sugar smell of his mother's closet, the indentation on the wood frame of his bedroom window that resembled the smiling face of a clown, the fish shapes in the sea green tiles on the bathroom wall.

And he remembered his family: his mother, Caroline--her low, clear voice, and the songs she'd taught him to sing; his sisters, Lissa and Julie, and his feeling of terrified delight when they would push him higher and higher in the swings in the park across the street. And Justin remembered watching his father run, and he remembered how fast he could move--faster than any little boy could ever follow.

What Justin no longer recalled was why he had let so much time pass without ever returning to his home or contacting the people who lived there. In college and in the ten years following, when he'd been rising swiftly through the ranks of hotel management, he had always come up with the same superficial answer when asked about his family--nothing more substantial than that they lived in California and that he was fond of them but not close with them. This is what he'd told Amy in the course of their whirlwind courtship, and it was what had been told to her parents when they had been given the news of Justin and Amy's marriage.

It was a story Justin had repeated countless times. With each recitation, he knew he was deliberately choosing to let go of his past. But he didn't know why.

"Justin, this place is amazing." Amy's voice seemed to be floating toward him from a great distance. "It looks like some old-fashioned, really remote vacation home and yet here it is, less than twenty minutes away from Los Angeles."

At the sound of a small, fussy cough, Amy turned her attention away from the house. She leaned over and quickly reached into the backseat--for Zack. He was waking up from his nap, squirming and eager to be free of his car seat.

There was something in Amy's swift, fluid movement that made Justin think of the first time he'd ever seen her. In London. Crossing the lobby of the hotel in a peach-colored dress. Her legs had been bare, and lightly tanned. Justin had immediately wondered what it would be like to rest his face between those lightly tanned bare legs; how the heat of it might feel, how the color of it might be the same peachy hue as her dress, and how the taste of it might be the taste of honey.

Now, as this odd trembling fear was moving through him, Justin wanted nothing more than to rest his head in Amy's lap, simply for the warmth and comfort of it. But instead, he got out of the car. He walked away from his waiting wife and baby and went toward the strange place in which he had accomplished his growing up.

As he climbed the front steps, he caught sight of his own reflection in one of the wide windows that flanked the door. He glimpsed what appeared to be a shadow of himself, gazing out from inside the house, and he had the sensation that time was shifting into an undulant half speed, slowing and collapsing inward. His crossing of the wide wicker-furnished porch felt surreal.

He hesitated for a minute, thinking about the fast-moving kaleidoscope of events that had unexpectedly led him back to Lima Street: Amy coming to London to attend a wedding in the hotel he was managing; falling in love with her the moment he saw her and getting married in a rush; conceiving Zack on their wedding night; the job offer from a Santa Monica hotel that came on the day Zack turned six months old; and then a few weeks later, only eight days ago, landing at the Los Angeles airport and hearing Amy say: "Justin, the first thing you need to do, now that you're back in California, is get in touch with your parents and your sisters. It's important. For Zack. I want him to know his family."

If it had been left to Justin, it would have taken him much longer, perhaps a lifetime, to return to this place.

When he rested his hand on the bell beside the front door, he heard the lock click almost immediately and the door was swung open by an Asian teenager. The sight of this girl in her skimpy T-shirt, tight jeans and red baseball cap, seemingly so at ease in his parents' doorway, confused him. He cleared his throat to steady his voice before he spoke. "Mr. Fisher or his wife, are either one of them at home?" The blank way the girl was looking at him made him feel off balance, as if he needed to explain himself. "I'm their son," he said.

"Sorry, there's nobody named Fisher here." The girl shrugged and closed the door.

Justin had never conceived of his mother, or the rest of his family, not being in this house. The idea that they were gone left him stunned.

It was several minutes before he turned away from the closed door. He was almost at the sidewalk when the door opened again and the girl called out to him: "Wait! My mom says the people we bought the house from . . . their father, the old man who lived here, he was named Fisher. She says she has the address of the place he went. After he left here."

And with that, the destination for Justin's awkward homecoming was no longer the house on Lima Street.


The convalescent hospital was a squat cinder-block building, pungent with the smells of antiseptic and floor wax and decay, bustling with nurses in bright uniforms, repellent with the furtive, indecorous enterprise of courting death.

The moment Justin had walked through the front doors, his skin had begun to crawl. He was relieved that he'd taken Amy and Zack home before coming here.

He'd been standing at the receptionist's window for several minutes. She was oblivious to him, prattling away on the phone. There was a large snow dome on the counter near her elbow. Justin picked it up and then deliberately let it drop. It landed with a shattering bang.

The receptionist looked up; the surprise in her eyes was immediately replaced by something self-conscious, flirtatious. It was a look Justin often noticed in the eyes of women when they first saw him. He'd been a teenager when he had initially become aware of it, but he hadn't paid much attention. He'd been moving too fast.

He had exploded out of high school. Within twenty-four hours of graduation, he had arrived in Boston, checked in at the university admissions office, signed the papers confirming his scholarship, rented half a room in a sweltering apartment alive with rats and reggae, and begun a part-time job as a bellboy in a boutique hotel.

Justin had dark hair and green eyes; he was six-foot-two, lean, wide-shouldered, with the body of a swimmer and the hint of a dimple when he smiled. Back in Boston, his looks had elicited the same response from the hotel's female guests as the one he was receiving now. The hospital receptionist was blushing as she was saying: "Can I help you?"

"Robert Fisher," Justin told her. "I'm his son. I want to see him."

The receptionist glanced away just long enough to scroll through the information on her computer screen. When she looked back, she was flustered. "You know what . . . I think you're gonna need to talk to the administrator. I'll page her. You can wait in her office." She pointed toward the end of a long corridor. The walls were blank, the color of snow, and running the length of them was a series of open doorways, their edges painted glossy black and bordered in yellow-gold. The passageway resembled an austere art gallery lined with massive gilt-edged picture frames.

Justin moved past the reception desk, into the corridor. On the other side of one of the open doorways was an old woman lying on a high, narrow bed. Stick-thin, blue-white. A comatose remnant ravaged by the passing of her own existence. The sight of her made Justin shudder.

He looked away. Through another of the doorways he glimpsed an old man. Large and powerfully built. An individual who might once have commanded troops or welded the steel of suspension bridges but who was now a relic perched on the edge of a hospital bed. Fast asleep. His legs splaying, his hospital gown opening. The last of his dignity slipping away.

Justin felt as if he were suffocating. The girl in the red baseball cap must have been mistaken. There was no way his father could be in this pile of human wreckage. Justin could remember seeing him with Julie and Lissa, watching him pick them up and swoop them into the air effortlessly. A man so vital and strong couldn't be in a place like this. This was a holding tank for death.

In a few rapid strides, Justin was at the end of the corridor and through the door of the administrator's office. It was small and untidy--and, to Justin's relief, unoccupied. He needed to be alone. He needed, literally, to catch his breath.

He was panicky. He suddenly knew he wasn't ready for this. There were too many missing pieces--too much incomplete information. He had no idea where his mother was, and he couldn't even muster a clear recollection of his father's face.

Within minutes the cramped, stuffy office was closing in on him like a cage.

He stood up and grabbed his keys from his pocket. But just as he was preparing to leave, the hospital administrator walked through the door. She was a featureless woman, dressed in shades of beige. "Sorry to have kept you waiting," she said. "I understand you're Mr. Fisher's son?"

This woman's sudden appearance had ended any hope of escape; Justin was trapped.

"We weren't aware that Mr. Fisher had a son." The administrator was looking down at her hands, studying them with an odd intensity. Then she said: "Your father passed away. Two weeks ago. He had a second, very severe stroke. Your family didn't inform you?"

The room seemed to shift and ride dangerously high to one side, like a boat hit by a rogue wave. There was a long silence. Then Justin heard his own voice and was startled by how calm and matter-of-fact it sounded. "I've been away," he said. "Up until last week, I was living in London. I haven't seen my family in a long time."

"How awful that you had to come home to this kind of news." The administrator was taking something from a shelf near her desk. She gave Justin a look of genuine sympathy as she said: "We've been holding a few of your father's things. I was about to put them in the mail."

She handed Justin a small box. Taped to the front of it was a carefully lettered shipping label.


The nursing home's doors closed behind him and Justin was once again in the parking lot. Two hospital workers, a man and a pretty girl, were leisurely loading a gurney--with its bagged and zippered occupant--into the back of a mortuary van. They were smiling and chatting. With a quick move, the girl peeled off one of her latex gloves and slingshotted it toward a nearby trash can; it sailed in like weighted silk. She did a little victory dance: "You owe me a Starbucks." She laughed, and her companion gave her a high five. Less than an hour had passed since Justin had first arrived in this parking lot. Time enough for a father to be lost and a cup of coffee to be won; for a world to be shattered and for the world to remain untouched.

Instead of going to his car, Justin sat on a bench and watched the mortuary van drive away. Long after it had gone, he continued to sit, holding the small, carefully labeled box in his lap. Several cars came and went, then a delivery truck and a fat man on a Harley. Two old women in an ancient lurching Cadillac. A gawky kid with a skateboard and a gaggle of girls eating ice-cream cones wandered along the sidewalk. A squirrel corkscrewed back and forth on a power line, emitting frantic chattering screams. And Justin simply sat.

He was letting it in, again and again: the fact that his father was dead. He knew he should be inundated with memories, consumed with sorrow. But there was no flood of memory, no sadness. There was only a sense of dread--a chilling knowledge that the splintered door to some long-buried chamber was quietly being forced open.


From the Hardcover edition.

What People are saying about this

"A lovely, compelling debut novel. Aptly titled, The Language of Secrets explores the ramifications of loss, the aftermath of tragedy, and the sometimes terrible cost a child can pay for a parent's guilt."
--Kristin Hannah

"The Language of Secrets is a psychological mystery with emotional underpinnings that will have you puzzled and intrigued right up to the moment Dixon's sleight of hand is revealed."
--Sue Grafton

Meet the Author

DIANNE DIXON is a screenwriter living in California who has twice been nominated for an Emmy, has won a Humanitas Prize for work done in television, and has been Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Language of Secrets 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
retromom More than 1 year ago
Wow, this is a book that packs a punch! Imagine going to see your family, you find your parents deceased and you see your own headstone that says you died as a young child. The story goes back and forth from the present back to the past to tell how such a thing could happen. The family secrets that are revealed as Justin tries to learn who he is and where he came from are quite shocking! As Justin unveiled secrets to his past I felt very sorry for him. His story was heartbreaking. I found myself questioning how far a mother would go to protect her family. I thought I knew exactly where the story was going until the very last page where the ending caught me totally off guard! Loved it! Dianne Dixon weaves a web of lies, deception and betrayals that is so suspenseful you will be up reading into the wee hours of the morning.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
The Language of Secrets is a tightly wound mystery, with a plot unlike any other I've ever run across. The entire story is unusual and grabs you immediately. The main character had moved to London to pursue a career, and remained out of touch with his immediate family. After many, many years, he returns to California and tries to reconnect. He finds his parents have died, and when he visits their graves, he sees another headstone next to them. His. Showing that he died at age four. Immediately he's bounced into a living hell of flashbacks, waking delusions, and disquietude that infects his own marriage. He has no idea who he is and what has happened. Thus begins this twisted and complex tale that takes you through the lives of several members of his family. It is suspenseful and much so that I felt nauseated at times. Perhaps it was the suspense of the missing four year, nearly the same age as my own child, which made me anxious. All I can say is that this story fascinated me by just how off-the-wall it was. I read a lot, and running into an utterly unique premise is unusual. That said, it's apparent that this is a plot driven story rather than built on solid characters. I felt a bit cheated that some of these amazing situations came from some rather superficial characters who seemed predictable despite the unpredictable plot. Some were so shallow that I could actually foresee their actions, and others exemplified tremendous character values yet no rationale for their behavior was given. It was the characters that detracted me from the story. The story proceeds at a quick pace, and the only other "blip" that occurred was when one character's almost unimaginable actions were explained, in an 'aside' by the author, where she attempts to justify the actions in light of the socio-political values of the time period. It was only two paragraphs, but it didn't fit. She should have been able to show those details without such an invasive explanation. It felt a bit preachy, actually, and it derailed the pace. And while she tried to account for the actions, it wasn't sufficient to overcome the initial doubt about the behavior, and effectively made her argument less powerful. This is a intriguing book, and one that I will share with friends. The minor flaws it has doesn't take away from this tremendous story and fascinating plot.
mtobias More than 1 year ago
With the vivid skill of her screenwriting background, Dianne Dixon creates compelling characters and a rugged emotional landscape in which her tale unfolds . With both broad and delicate strokes, she plows the deep, the dark and the devastating effects of loss at the hands of damaged souls. Despite the revelations Justin Fisher encounters regarding his murky past, we learn, along with him, that having the courage to seek the truth, however painful, can indeed set us free.
LondonBookworm More than 1 year ago
If you start this book when you have appointments looming or should be going to sleep, you're in trouble. It's not the sort of read you can put down at the end of a chapter and turn out the light. Once the central character has made his dramatic discovery, you HAVE to know the reason why. I read it in one sitting and it flew by. Dianne Dixon has a spare urgency in her writing style that keeps those pages turning. Landscapes and characters really come to life. Perfect for holiday reading, an empty weekend, a long plane journey. I looked for more books by this author but apparently its her first. I hope she writes more.
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I enjoyed the book and had a hard time putting it down, but I wished as the ending of the book was coming closer, that there were more answers with some of the characters. I can definitely see a sequel to extend the other stories that to me needed closing. Still a good read.
ChristysBookBlog More than 1 year ago
The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon is a poignant and haunting look into the devastation caused by the secrets we keep. Justin Fisher has just begun a wonderful new life with his wife Amy and new son Zack in their new home in California. Returning to his home state after fifteen years away, he decides to finally visit his parents, but finds that their home has been sold, and his father's new address is a convalescent home. Following the clues, he soon discovers that his father recently died, his mother died two years ago, and when he goes to visit their graves, he finds one with his own name on it with a death date of thirty years ago. The shock sends Justin on a quest to learn why his sister refused to talk to him when he went to her home, why he answers to the name TJ, and who is the red-haired woman he remembers as his mother. But the answers about his past may just destroy his future. Dixon has created an interesting study on how one small act can have major repercussions. The story flips between Justin's present and his mother's past as the author puts together this tragic story. Every character feels completely lost, as though floundering through life trying to find some significance and purpose. Justin doesn't quite know who he is, Amy needs to escape her father's grasp, Caroline wants to reclaim the beautiful girl she used to be, and Robert just wants to hold on to his wife who he always knew was too good for him. Dixon touches on several themes: Caroline's lack of power after becoming pregnant in the 1960s and feeling forced to marry the father, leaving her without any way to support herself or her dreams; Justin's desire to clean the slate, even if it means doing the wrong thing for the right reason. The story is completely haunted by Robert's anger and need for revenge on his wife. His love for her is fueled with an anger that will ultimately destroy all that he desires. It's a terribly sad story, but Dixon has a knack for dealing compassionately with unsympathetic characters and exposing their humanness. It's a novel that will haunt readers long after the last page is turned.
VickiLN More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!!! Imagine having pieces of your life gone. Missing years. Then, slowly, bits and pieces come back. But what you are remembering makes no sense. You find the house you grew up in but strangers are living there. You are told your father is dead, so you go to the cemetery only to find another headstone next to his. Your mother. But then, there is a third headstone with the name Thomas Justin Fisher. Three years can that be? You are Thomas Justin Fisher. And that's just the beginning of the web of lies and betrayals. There is so much more I could say about this book, but don't want to spoil it if you decide to read it. I can't imagine why anyone not liking this book, because I loved it so much. The book jumps from character to character, present to past and back again. And ends with one last shock. I couldn't finish this book fast enough. I HAD to know how it was going to play out. And when it did end, I was sad that I had to say goodbye to everyone, especially Justin and Caroline. I can't wait to read more from this talented author.
gl More than 1 year ago
When I first started The Language of Secrets, I wasn't sure what to expect. The book opens with Justin Fisher pulling up to a beautiful old wooden house 20 minutes from Los Angeles. Justin is so nervous that he's trembling and he hides this from his young wife. It is clear that Justin doesn't know what to expect and is somewhat disoriented, we don't know why his memory appears spotty - whether there is something wrong with Justin's mental state or if some event has caused these "missing pieces -- blank spaces where important parts of his past should have been". It is clear that there's a mystery and that it began over a decade ago. Justin discovers that the dreaded family reunion has been postponed. It has taken him so long to return to the house on Lima Street, that it is too late to see his parents. When he discovers his grave next to theirs, Justin begins to wonder about his grip on reality. To be h0nest, I did too -- Dianne Dixon keeps us guessing about the mystery of Justin's gravestone and who Justin Fisher really is. This uncertainty, coupled with the stresses of a new job and relocation from England, and the growing pains of his recent marriage put additional pressure on Justin just as he appears fragile. Dixon is careful not tip her hand - and the details and the writing draw us into the mystery and keep us wondering. As Justin slowly comes across clues to his past and Dixon reveals what happened during those "missing years", she weaves in the story of Justin's different parents. Once Dixon introduced Caroline and told her story, The Language of Secrets transformed from a good read to an amazing story. As the book will affect each reader in a unique way, to me The Language of Secrets was a book about motherhood - the sacrifices, pains, joy, and misunderstood moments. The Language of Secrets is a unique book, beautifully crafted and powerful. ISBN-10: 0385530633 - Hardcover Publisher: Doubleday (March 23, 2010), 272 pages Review copy provided by the publisher.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
Family doesn't have one solid definition. For Justin Fisher, this knowledge is all too real. After years of not speaking to his parents, he decides to take a trip bringing his wife and son with him. When he finds out that his parents have passed away, he is more than shattered. While visiting the cemetery, he sees that there is a three year old boy named Thomas Fisher buried right next to his parents. All of a sudden he begins to remember his life as a young boy. The drama has just begun for Justin, he wants to know the truth after all the lies. I wouldn't say this book is spectacular but it does have a good plot. I felt like it was a little drawn out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the first chapter and was hooked. A beautifully written page-turner that will make you look at the people you love in a whole new way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago