Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself

Paris in the 1920s. It is a city of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou ...

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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

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Overview

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself

Paris in the 1920s. It is a city of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club's loyal denizens, including the rising photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine.

As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more sinister: collaboration with the Nazis.

Told in a kaleidoscope of voices, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 evokes this incandescent city with brio, humor, and intimacy. A brilliant work of fiction and a mesmerizing read, it is Francine Prose's finest novel yet.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
03/01/2014
What's most striking about this latest work from Prose (Blue Angel) is how effectively she weaves together the stories of more than a half dozen characters to tell the larger picture of France (and, indeed, Europe) between the World Wars while reflecting on the nature of evil and the limits of biography (and biographical fiction). In these pages we meet Gabor, a Hungarian photographer modeled on Brassaï, who is friends with blustery, self-absorbed American novelist Lionel Maine (obviously Hemingway) and whose patron is Baroness Lily de Rossignol, a former actress with an affecting backstory and a hint of Peggy Guggenheim. Gabor's love (once Lionel's) is the hearty and charming Suzanne Dunois, reputedly the subject of a biography drawn from her memoirs by a great-niece. The protagonists are brought together at Paris's steamy, anything-goes Chameleon Club, where they cross paths with the linchpin character, Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian who finds shelter at the club and goes on to a skewed career as a performer, racing-car driver, and, shockingly, supporter of National Socialism. At first a smoothly unrolling tapestry, the novel deepens as it portrays a society careening toward war. VERDICT Both entertaining and reflective for any reader of fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 11/3/13.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
The New York Times Book Review - Edmund White
Francine Prose is a subtle psychologist and a compassionate humanist, but nevertheless she has created a genuinely evil character in Lou Villars…Prose is careful to show how a decent but under-loved girl becomes a monster. Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford referred frequently to the strategy known as progression d'effet. Prose has mastered this kind of narrative magic, revealing the gradual transformation of white to black through tiny gradations…Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is a novel of great reach and power, a portrait of an entire era. Prose's canvas is crowded with many characters, but they're all well-delineated. She has a miraculous gift for imagining a foggy quay or a smoky cabaret—or a strait-laced banquet given by the Führer…Though there are multiple narrators, each is distinct, since Prose has a knack for parodying different voices.
Publishers Weekly
02/17/2014
Prose’s 21st novel (after The Turning) captures the brilliance of Paris’s bohemian art scene in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as the dark days that followed. Louisianne “Lou” Villars, a talented athlete, travels to Paris as a teenager, hoping to someday compete in the Olympics, but instead she ends up checking coats at the Chameleon Club, famed around the city for its gender-defying patrons and cabaret. Lou’s real-life model is Violette Morris, a cross-dressing professional race car driver turned Nazi spy, immortalized in Brassaï’s iconic photograph, Lesbian Couple at le Monocle, 1932. The novel follows Lou as she falls in and out of love, becomes a professional race car driver, and dines with the Führer in Berlin. This story is told piecemeal through the frequently unreliable and self-serving recollections of Lou’s friends—among them the visionary and egotistical photographer Gabor Tsenyi; Lily de Rossignol, Gabor and Lou’s benefactress; and Nathalie Dunois, Lou’s biographer. The novel skillfully portrays the headiness of Parisian cafes, where artists and writers came together to talk and cadge free drinks, and the terror of the Nazi Occupation. Though the momentum lags at times, Prose deftly demonstrates with a wink the self-seeking nature of memory and the way we portray our past. (May)
Karen Russell
“A reading experience like none other-a shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways…Readers of this extraordinary novel become Villars’ co-biographers, piecing through ‘official’ and underground accounts as ample (and as unreliable) as the human library of memory. I was addicted to this book.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Prose’s latest book goes further in destroying the concept of a single truth than ‘Rashomon.’ It’s also an uproarious portrait of Paris from the mid-twenties to the Second World War. Prose has always been adept at slaying sacred cows; in this book, she pretty much machine-guns them.”
Jennifer Egan
“An engrossing literary mystery…Refracting the vivid, villainous life of Louisianne Villars through letters, memoirs, and the recreations of a biographer, Prose coaxes into kaleidoscopic view both a tortured human being and bohemian Paris before and during the Nazi occupation… she cleverly exploits the vain, self-serving nature of memory itself.”
Scott Spencer
“A pitch perfect pastiche that interrogates the meaning of art and the limits of loyalty. With a style that is beautiful, strong, modest and absolutely authoritative Prose directs the light of her immense talent on the horrors of fascism and the puzzling, sometimes punishing nature of love. A great novel.”
Michael Cunningham
“Significant writers are rare. A writer like Prose, who is not only significant but capable of writing brilliantly about pretty much anything-from obsessive love to religious ecstasy to life in Paris in the twenties and beyond-is not only rare. She is, essentially, the Hope Diamond of literature.”
Diane Johnson
“Brilliant and wicked and funny and right on-never has Europe been done with such savage precision…Every bit funny and appalling, at the end especially, of course. There’s not a French affectation, hypocrisy or depravity left untouched. I love it!”
Joshua Ferris
“Prose is the real chameleon here, blending effortlessly into half a dozen disparate voices…The result is a perfect stunner, the novel-as-a Picasso, or a kaleidoscope-vivid, fractured, and spellbinding…Prose is one of our sharpest critics and our most daring novelists, and this is her best book.”
O Magazine
“A master of the craft delivers a riveting period piece that probes the origins of evil.”
The New York Times
“The breadth, nerve and intricacy of Francine Prose’s big new novel should surprise even her most regular readers. A bona fide page turner…”
The New York Times Book Review
“A novel of great reach and power, a portrait of an entire era.”
Interview Magazine
Many sure-footed novelists have tried to embody Paris in its boozy, gender-bending, art-and-outrage pre-occupation golden age of the ‘20s and ‘30s before, but the ever-exceptional Prose succeeds in making the city alive by supplying it with a dissonant, avant-garde chorus of voices…
Elle
“Engrossing...The narrative twists and turns, circles back to add depth to previous scenes, at other times casts doubt on the reliability of a narrator, and occasionally calls into question the entire endeavor of historical fiction.”
Shelf Awareness
“Prose’s novel pulses with the heartbeat of real life, brimming with colorful characters as artists (including, notably, Pablo Picasso), petty forgers, Nazis and resistance fighters meet on the page… It is a testament to Prose’s considerable talent that she’s able to execute such an ambitious work so flawlessly.”
Miami Herald
“A tour de force…The result is fresh, layered and nuanced. It’s historical fiction done right and one of the finest accomplishments of this accomplished author…The novel dazzles. With sure, intelligent narrative and elegant detail, Prose has crafted a story that honors its characters and a pivotal time in history.”
The Washington Post
“So dazzlingly does Francine Prose re-create this seamy chapter of mid-century Paris that it’s tempting to think of her as not a novelist but an editor who corralled all these people into a raucous work of history...C’est magnifique!”
Wall Street Journal
“Prose exuberantly conjures up the romance of that unstable era…filled with felicitous imagery and sparkling period details.”
The Tampa Bay Times
“Prose does an impressive job crafting a plot in which each version of the story takes on its own dimensions and echoes - and the biggest question may be just which one of those narrators is the most outrageously unreliable.”
The Daily Beast
“Francine Prose, in a testament to her talents, has managed to create a wartime saga that is both original and epic.”
BookPage
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932 is a remarkable work of fiction that feels completely true. Richly atmospheric and utterly engrossing, it is not to be missed.”
The Seattle Times
“The circumstances that foster such unhappiness are always elusive, but they can be explored. That’s the task of a good novel, and Prose has done the job.”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“Prose’s excellent novel, which treads between lightly mischievous (mocking Henry Miller) and deadly serious (invading Nazis), centers on a fictionalized French Olympic hopeful who spied for the Germans - and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.”
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A rich portrait of a difficult age”
W Magazine
“[F]ascinating… Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 captures the vibrance and violence of bohemian Paris before World War II…”
Marie Claire
“Sexy, cross-dressing athlete Lou Villars is as complex as her Nazi-era Paris home.”
The Chicago Tribune
“At its best moments, the reader almost becomes another character in the novel, searching for meaning amid the menace and beauty of wartime Paris, surrounded by the city’s many conflicting truths.”
Bookreporter.com
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932 paints an unforgettable portrait of Paris between the wars, a time and place that holds endless fascination for readers.”
USA Today
“Provocative, powerful.”
The Asheville Citizen-Times
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB is a teeming social portrait, told through several peculiar voices - Lou’s is not one of them - and made real by astonishingly authentic details… Prose is versatile and fluid.”
Karen Russell
“A reading experience like none other-a shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways…Readers of this extraordinary novel become Villars’ co-biographers, piecing through ‘official’ and underground accounts as ample (and as unreliable) as the human library of memory. I was addicted to this book.”
Elle
“Engrossing...The narrative twists and turns, circles back to add depth to previous scenes, at other times casts doubt on the reliability of a narrator, and occasionally calls into question the entire endeavor of historical fiction.”
Maureen Corrigan
“An ingenious excursion into the Parisian demimonde.”
BookBrowse
“The wonder of Ms. Prose’s terrific historical novel is how she takes inspiration from a work of visual art and builds, not just one story, not just one voice, but a kaleidoscope of voices and angles about individuals whose lives intersect at a particular time and place.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Sexy, illicit … the best stories come to us many times over, repeated until even their true parts bear the qualities of fiction. They’re also the ones we can’t possibly know all of. This powerful, perceptive book offers these truths, and-even better-a great story to shroud them.”
Lesbian & Gay Review
“Epic...this world takes on a depth and breadth that justifies the novel’s sweeping ambitions
Booklist (starred review)
“A dark and glorious tour de force…In an intricately patterned, ever-morphing, lavishly well-informed plot spanning the French countryside and reaching to Berlin, Prose intensifies our depth perception of that time of epic aberration and mesmerizing evil as she portrays complex, besieged individuals struggling to become their true selves.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-04
A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II. The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva "Yvonne" Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era's iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi's eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne's great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol's memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne's lover before she was "stolen away" by the photographer. Brilliant and dazzling Prose.
The Barnes & Noble Review
No one could mistake Francine Prose's historical novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 for a costume drama. With an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic narrative fractured among the written recollections of a handful of colorful characters, it is full of sharp angles -- the sorts of prismatic, sometimes distorted or jagged points of view that can lead to intriguing questions about what really happened. Chronicling the incipient creep of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and right-wing proto-fascist hoodlums in Paris between 1924 and 1944, Prose's energetically intelligent book evokes both the dark dazzle of Cabaret and the Cubist art of the period.

The novel was inspired by Hungarian photographer Brassaï's famous photograph Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932. Prose has trained her focus on the androgynous woman in the tuxedo -- a professional athlete and race car driver named Violette Morris, who endured a double mastectomy in order to fit more comfortably behind the wheel but then was expelled from the French team for wearing more items of masculine apparel than allowed by the Napoleonic Code. Seduced by the Nazis, she became skilled at extracting information for the Gestapo and was assassinated by Resistance fighters in 1944. We learn about this unhappy, unlucky-in-love, Joan of Arc–obsessed cross-dresser -- whom Prose rechristens Lou Villars -- via a round robin of chapter-long excerpts from the fictional memoirs, letters, and books purportedly penned by Prose's characters. These overlapping and sometimes contradictory accounts artfully highlight the self-serving nature of memory.

Prose's cast includes several habitués of the titular Montparnasse nightclub, a place whose de facto motto is "Love is strange." With its wry "secret" password -- "Police! Open up!" -- and risqué floor shows, the Chameleon Club is a popular refuge of the demimonde, attracting artists, lesbians, homosexuals, and cross-dressers. But despite its tolerance for sexual diversity, its revues are increasingly filled with nasty jabs at Jews and foreigners, and its Polish coat check girl makes extra pocket change selling "religious cards of Joan of Arc, dirty photos, and cartoons of hook-nosed Jews counting money and molesting children."

The novel's stand-in for Brassaï, insomniac Gabor Tsenyi, prowls around Paris by night photographing prostitutes, transvestites, and the homeless, a mission he describes in apologetic, loving letters to his parents back in Hungary. He frequently crosses paths with Lionel Maine, a cynical American writer -- based on Henry Miller -- who is perpetually on the hunt for free drinks and freer women. Commenting on Gabor's growing fame, Lionel notes that his brilliant photographer friend "has arranged the perfect union of serious art with the ever-beloved dirty French postcard." We are treated to whole chapters of his books, which achieve notoriety after being banned in America. In them, Lionel writes of his love affair with Paris and its artists (including Picasso), and of his determination to "rip the ghastly wig off the beautiful bald head of truth!"

Gabor's wealthy patron, the sleek Baroness Lily de Rossignol -- who is married to a luxury sports car manufacturer who likes kissing women but sleeping with Swedish boys -- puts her own rich spin on the story in her bestselling postwar memoir, A Baroness by Night. Both she and Gabor's wife, Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, become heroines of the French Resistance. "The selections from Suzanne's unpublished memoir offer a more convincing version of events, though her story, too, is skewed, colored by her jealousy of Gabor's relationship with the baroness. Threaded among these "memoirs" and "letters" is the most dubious account of all, a biography of Lou Villars called The Devil Drives. This self-published, wildly subjective and alarmingly sympathetic inquiry into Lou's incremental slide into evil is written by an increasingly unhinged provincial schoolteacher named Nathalie Dunois, who professes to be the grand-niece of Suzanne, the photographer's widow. She raises red flags from the start when she confesses, "I have had to embroider a bit, fill in gaps, invent dialogue, make an occasional imaginative leap or informed guess about what my subject would have thought and felt." Her book is laced with hilariously inappropriate asides comparing her own disastrous romantic relationships and personal trials with those of her subject.

Prose, who has demonstrated her keen talent for chameleon-like versatility, mimicry, and sharp social commentary in a prolific career that includes Blue Angel, A Changed Man, and My New American Life, obviously had fun parodying her characters' varying writing styles, but she goes overboard on this send-up of purported scholarship, which is hysterical in more ways than one. Like a clever joke that goes on too long, the chapters from The Devil Drives eventually drag, diluting the intensity of Prose's novel.

But even this faux biography showcases Prose's considerable skill at blending research and fiction while slyly raising serious and sometimes delicate questions about guilt, blame, responsibility, and "the mystery of evil." Lovers at the Chameleon Club oozes with stinging examples of French anti-Semitism, racism, ugly nationalism, and prejudice against foreigners that add up to what one character calls a culture of "poisonous Frenchness." Suzanne insists that her fellow countrymen had to have known what was happening to the Jews during the Occupation, though "no French citizen wants to hear it." Nathalie attributes her inability to find a publisher for her biography of a French collaborator to the country's "sensitivity about its World War II record -- its willful erasure of the shameful truth about our historic past." While Nathalie is clearly missing the mark about her book's risible inadequacy, Prose intimates that she is not entirely off base in her political assessments.

Substance aside, one level on which to appreciate Lovers at the Chameleon Club is as an impressive feat of literary engineering. With its revolving carousel of voices and witnesses, Prose builds a chronological plot that is circular as well as linear. There are casualties to this structure, however: Narrative momentum suffers from the repetitions, and suspense is dissipated, since we're told up front what will become of Lou -- who remains something of an enigma at the heart of the novel.

Yet we keep turning pages -- more eagerly after heroes emerge -- to see how it will all shake out and where Prose is going with her elaborate construct. The intrigue is in the nuances between the divergent points of view, but along the way, we're entertained by often absurd set pieces, which include a bizarre dinner in Berlin at which Hitler beguiles a susceptible, disenfranchised, carnivorous Lou over vegetarian nut cutlets on the eve of the 1936 Olympics. One of my favorite sentences captures Prose's subversively parodic approach -- and the loopy, twisted perspective of the off-base biographer Nathalie. After outrageously using the word "decent" in connection with Lou's remuneration for her "stressful" job as a Nazi torturer and spy, she comments: "How far she'd exceeded the low expectations of her governess and her teachers!"

For another novel inspired by a famous photograph, I highly recommend Marisa Silver's Mary Coin, which spins an absorbing multi-pronged story based on Dorothea Lange's iconic Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother. Both books penetrate deep beneath the enigmatic surface of the images that inspired them and make a case for learning how to re-frame even the things you think you know well.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: McAlpin, Heller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062199133
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/22/2014
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 11,938
  • File size: 615 KB

Meet the Author

Francine Prose

Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2014

    An absolutely amazing book that I could not put down! Although f

    An absolutely amazing book that I could not put down! Although fiction, it reads like a real story and it provides historical insights.
    Each chapter is narrated by a different character in this  expansive novel which is sure to create much buzz. 

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2014

    Weird, odd, and fascinating!!!

    As I am finishing this book, it is hard to believe it is based on an actual person. Another absolutely great read on the NOOK is the "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. This book is also set during war. It also has an awful villian based on a true villian who betrayed his own people. As both books are historical fiction, you will be drawn into the stories. This book took me longer to care about because I did not read about the noble characters which are in Jarvis's book. Sometimes it was hard to like some of her characters. Also, this story jumps from one character to another, while Jarvis's book flows with excellent writing and a consistant voice. Both books deserve A+++++

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2014

    Fantastic

    I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of "LOVERS of THE CHAMELEON CLUB PARIS 1932" by Francine Prone.

    It was a pleasant surprise that I might have missed if I had not received an advanced copy. Turns out it was one of the best books I have read and I've read a lot of books. The style reminded me of the book NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl. The author uses several vehicles to tell the story as a whole. For instance one of the vehicles is a fictional book "Make Yourself New" by fictional writer Lionel Maine who is based on the writer Henry Miller and his book "Tropic of Cancer" (in my opinion.) There are several other fictional publications used to make up the body of the book. It may sound complicated but it works very well and moves the book along and keeps you tuning pages. The author brought together some very good characters and in the process brought the novel to a very good ending.

    Over all the book was very interesting with a lot of real people included along with the fictional characters. I would recommend this to my sister and I do not do that lightly. It is very good 4 1/3 stars.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2015

    Pokemon girl

    Walks in the Cerulean city gym with her mew, lucario, umbreon, and ninetales following her. She asks misty, "May we battle you?". Then she shows misty her 24 badges from beating 3 regions.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2014

    Thorn

    Walked out tovtrain

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2014

    Cerulean City Gym

    Misty waits there, smiling at her Krabby

    0 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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