The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

( 45 )

Overview

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.
 
   Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth's ...

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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel

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Overview

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.
 
   Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth's journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew. 
   The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died. 
   The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind.

Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Bernier’s excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page.” 
The Washingon Post

“Bernier masterfully eases open the doors that guard our deepest fears and, against a backdrop of a New England beach vacation, sweeps in fresh air and hope.”
Parade

“Thanks to incredibly realistic characters, this smart, bittersweet tale brilliantly captures what it means to be a mom, wife and friend.”
Family Circle

“I loved this bittersweet novel, which manages to be both a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety. Bernier will have you thinking about her characters long after you've turned the final page.”
—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Commencement and Maine
 
“A smart, poignant novel about the bittersweet choices women make and the secrets they keep. This is one of those rare novels that's so real you forget it's written; I literally carried it around with me, and I missed the characters when I was done.”
—Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
 
“Nichole Bernier writes as though she were born knowing how to do so.  She understands the fragility of the human heart and also the enduring strength of even imperfect relationships.  The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a gripping book with a delicate, tender core.  You will read on to unravel a mystery but also, to be moved, page after page.”  
—Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
 
“An absorbing, bittersweet novel that examines the vast grey area between protecting and deceiving the ones we love.” 
—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
 
“Written with exquisite grace, depth, and honesty, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. explores decisions driven by motherhood and marriage. I was transfixed as Kate read the journals she’d inherited from Elizabeth, peeling back the layers of her friend’s life, and in the process grappling with her own choices and terrors. Women have secret lives—sometimes hidden in the corners of our minds, sometimes in dreams unrealized. One mark of friendship is when and whether these nightmares and ambitions can be revealed. This riveting novel fiercely captures this fulcrum of the public and private lives of American mothers.”  
—Randy Susan Meyers, international bestselling author of The Murderer’s Daughters 

“Debut novelist Bernier’s thoughtful observations on friendship, identity, motherhood, work, and marriage wrap around the mystery of Elizabeth, whose journal writing enlivens the book and gives readers much to think about. This literary novel should be a favorite of book groups and have broad appeal beyond.”
Library Journal

“Moments of beauty and depth of spirit will appeal to readers interested in secrets revealed.” 
Publishers Weekly

“This exquisite and honest portrait of friendship and motherhood unfurls a suspenseful plot whose jaw-dropping surprise ending is one that readers will be sure to discuss long after the book has been finished...Bernier successfully explores how women manage to balance so much in their everyday life and the complicated emotions (guilt, frustration, fear) that go along with being a working mother...The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is an important read for anyone who dares to ask just how well we really know our friends and neighbors, and what those discoveries mean about us.” 
BookPage

The Washington Post
Why did Elizabeth embark on her last trip? Why do we keep secrets from those we love most? Is it possible for mothers and fathers to have it all—work and family? Bernier's excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page.
—Nancy Robertson
Kirkus Reviews
Who was Kate's friend Elizabeth--a capable, cheerful and optimistic mother, or the troubled soul her diaries reveal? Bernier's debut repetitively probes the enigmatic life of the American wife. A cloud of regret hangs over this parallel-voiced examination of female roles as Bernier peels back the public faces of her two central characters to reveal anxiety and disappointment. Kate, a pastry chef and mother of two, used to be Elizabeth's neighbor in Connecticut until moving to Washington, D.C. After Elizabeth is killed in a plane crash, Kate learns that she has been left her friend's diaries and the request that she start reading them at the beginning. Perhaps they will explain Elizabeth's fateful decision to fly to California and her involvement with a man named Michael. Reading the journals, Kate learns of Elizabeth's guilt over her sister's death; and about her critical mother; her abandoned art career; her mixed feelings about her husband; her efforts to be good enough; her last choices. Kate, gripped by boundless fears for her family, constantly compares her friend's marriage to her own, which is solid enough but may now be changed by the whole experience. This nuanced portrait of marriage offers insight alongside somber reflections, but its landscape is obsessively interior and not very eventful.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307887825
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 226,577
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

NICHOLE BERNIER has written for publications including Psychology Today, Salon, Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A longtime contributing editor with Conde Nast Traveler, she lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.

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Interviews & Essays

Conversation between Dani Shapiro and Nichole Bernier

This is your first novel after years of being a magazine editor and writer. What made you decide to write this story? Joan Didion describes material she wants to write as having ?a shimmer? around its edges. What was this shimmer for you?

I have always been intrigued and haunted by the notion of legacy, the trace people leave behind once they're gone — how others define them, and what they've done to define themselves. I lost a friend in the September 11th terrorist attacks, and in the days afterward, I fielded the media calls for her husband so he wouldn't have to describe his loss repeatedly. I tried to offer short memorial statements that were meaningful and true but in the end they were still sound bites, and I couldn't stop wondering what would she have wanted said about her. What was the difference between the way I saw her, and the way she would have wanted to be seen, and remembered?

My book is not in any way about my friend, but grew out of the what-ifs: What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than their loved ones thought they'd known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold.

The backdrop of your novel is the year following terrorist attacks, a time that I've written about too. What made you choose that tumultuous period as your backdrop?

That was an extraordinary time when it felt as if the range of threats — anthrax, mad cow disease, poisoned reservoirs — were not only possible, but likely. I was a new mother that year, and I think many of us had the impulse to grab our loved ones and run. But we didn't know where to go, or from what. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis. But it was fascinating to me to create a character who could not: someone who was confident and competent, but felt the strain of keeping a family safe when no one knew where safe was.

The spine of the story is the inheritance of a trunk of journals. This was an ambitious structure, and I'm curious why you chose it. Do you feel there's any correlation between journals and today's blogs? Or does today's blogosphere make journals seem historic and quaint?

Initially, I thought of journals as a way to give voice to someone who was no longer living, and provide a source of strength to someone left behind, struggling in a world that felt dangerously arbitrary. I wove the two women's storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences, but perceived them differently. But it turned out to be more difficult than I thought; the parallel timelines had to consistently meet in some narrative way — thematically, or with some common event — so the reader would feel the way the friends connect, but also pass one another by.

The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It's a conversation with the best part of oneself.

Blogs can be many things — entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It's the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.

A big part of your novel concerns two mothers struggling to balance their jobs — or finding ways to keep a finger in work they loved — while being engaged in raising their children. As a mother of five, how do you manage both raising your kids and finding time to write?

It's a challenge, and I won't pretend it's not. I'm not usually at the computer when ideas come along, so I jot notes on whatever scrap of paper happens to be nearby, and sometimes type on my cellphone when I pretend to be taking pictures on the soccer sidelines. Time is scarce and precious, so there's no room for procrastination anymore; when I sit down to write, I've been planning what to work on in advance. More than anything it helps to have a supportive spouse, and my husband knows the greatest gift is the gift of time.

Still, no matter how many kids you have or how supportive your partner, there are only 24 hours in a day, and being busy forces you to triage what you value most. After I started my novel most of my hobbies fell by the wayside. But it clarifies what's most important to you — to know, say, that you can enjoy life without making gourmet meals or running a marathon, but you can't not write.

I also think it's good for my children to see that their mother loves them and loves her work, too. In a way, the kids have come to feel an ownership in the writing life; we have a lot of events at our home, and the kids enjoy talking to authors and passing food trays. It has been fascinating to watch their evolving awareness of writers as real people behind the bylines — people who started out loving to read, just like they do.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Many of the characters in the novel keep substantial secrets from one another for a variety of reasons. Whose do you think is the most damaging, and why?

2. In the year following September 11th, Kate’s fears reached a boiling point where any danger seemed possible, and she was paralyzed by the responsibility of keeping her family safe. Could you relate to this sentiment, and in what ways do you think that has diminished for you and in society at large, more than a decade later?

3. Kate conceals her anxiety because she is afraid it will make her seem less strong and competent. Do you think this fear is still warranted in these times of widespread knowledge about depression and anxiety, or is there still a stigma?

4. Why do you think Elizabeth was so private about her sister, and about her aspirations for meaningful work? Why do you think she never confided in Kate (and others) about how important her work was to her, even though Kate herself was passionate about her work?

5. The epigraph is an excerpt of an essay by Wallace Stegner about his mother, “Letter Much Too Late,” written sixty years after she’d died, when Stegner was 80.

Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to...You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.

How does this relate to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., and do you think it applies to more than one character?

6. Do you think the difference between being a stay-at-home mom or a mother with a career outside the home still creates barriers between women? Do you think if women show too much passion for their work they can be perceived as less motherly? If you have belonged to a playgroup, PTA or other social organization of mothers, have you sensed tensions, stereotypes or expectations based on working status?

7. When Elizabeth is in high school, she concludes, “Smile, and the world likes you more.” Do you think that is true?

8. Elizabeth did not start out as a socially dexterous person likely to be the hub and social glue of a neighborhood mom’s group. At what point (or points) in her life did she make the conscious transition from loner to joiner? Have you ever done something like this?

9. Early in the novel, Kate wonders about what it would be like if she wandered into her husband’s home office some night to read silently while he worked—as they used to, earlier in marriage—instead of retreating to her own spot in the living room. “It was a gift, solitude. But solitude with another person, that was an art.” Do you agree? Do you think this becomes easier or harder after years as a couple?

10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?

11. What was your interpretation of Elizabeth’s feelings for Kate? Of Kate’s for Elizabeth?

12. If someone is shouldering a burden that would cause their family pain, do you think dealing with it silently is the most giving or the most selfish thing? Is it possible to be both at once?

13. What kinds of things do you see—or imagine—people commonly conceal when crafting their public face?

14. Do you believe the most formative developments in your life—professionally and personally—have happened by choice, coincidence, or a combination of both?

15. Do you feel your life is well balanced right now, and why or why not? Do you think those closest to you would be surprised at the way you’d answer that question?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 45 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(19)

4 Star

(13)

3 Star

(7)

2 Star

(3)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 5, 2012

    Nichole Bernier reminds one (in finely-wrought, clear, solid, t

    Nichole Bernier reminds one (in finely-wrought, clear, solid, turn-the-page prose) that in motherhood, in friendship, in marriage, there are no easy answers. None of us have one side--we are instead faceted prisms, showing a side here, a side there--and when we are lucky, we find people who we can show almost every version of ourselves. Bernier catches the rarity of those moments--and explores a grief rarely looked at; the grief of losing a friend. Wonderful book that I highly recommend.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Compelling Read

    What if everything you knew about your best friend was a lie? This is the situation that Kate Spenser finds herself when her best friend, Elizabeth Martin, dies in a tragic plane crash leaving behind a husband and 3 small children. Agonizing over the loss of her friend, Kate is surprised when she receives a letter from Elizabeth's lawyer. Elizabeth has left Kate all of her journals with a simple statement of "Start at the beginning."

    The story follows two story lines, Elizabeth's journal entries and Kate's impressions and reactions to them. There was so much about Elizabeth that Kate never knew and she begins to re-examine her own life and marriage. The author does a phenomenal job of inviting the reader into both Kate's thoughts and Elizabeth's writing. I was totally absorbed in the story and as I read further, was more and more surprised at how rich and deep the story had become. It makes you think about your own life and how people would remember you if you died unexpectantly.

    "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D" is a stunning debut novel for Nichole Bernier.The characters of Kate and Elizabeth are both complicated and well-fleshed out as they struggle with their own identities of career woman vs. stay-at-home mom. Fans of women's fiction will thoroughly enjoy this story. Highly Recommended.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    Nichole Bernier is a gifted writer. In this wonderfully plotted

    Nichole Bernier is a gifted writer. In this wonderfully plotted book, she explores disease, loss, marriage, fidelity, terrorism, motherhood and friendship without missing a beat. She is a gifted story teller, and with grace and deftness she writes of what one friend learns about herself and her own world after the loss of a friend she thought she knew. I am a writer, and I will recommend this book to any writer who wants to learn how to create page-turning plots.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 5, 2012

    I couldn't put this book down, carrying it with me in the car to

    I couldn't put this book down, carrying it with me in the car to read in school pick up lines, to doctor's offices, anywhere I could read a few more lines. In the unfolding mystery of the journals, the true story of a life is told, one that even her best friend didn't truly appreciate, one that offers insights we all can benefit from. Highly recommended!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2012

    We all have friends and we all wonder about their private lives.

    We all have friends and we all wonder about their private lives. What are they thinking about? What are they hiding? This is a book that lets you live out the fantasy of knowing what REALLY going on in someone else's heart. And it's smart and a very absorbing read. I highly recommend.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 9, 2012

    Couldn't Put It Down!

    In Nichole Bernier's debut novel, "The Unfinshed Work of Eluzabet D," I see mirror images of my own life, my thoughts on motherhood and friendship, and my uncertainty of both the past and the future. Bernier has an almost lyrical way of stringing words together to form sentences that make the reader experience the story with all senses.

    I am carried this book with me for days, reading at every opportunity. I highly reccomend this one as an unputdownable!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    The Unfinished Work is "I don't want to go to bed until I r

    The Unfinished Work is "I don't want to go to bed until I read a little more" material. Bernier plucks emotional chords ranging from the yearning for the dreams we left undone to the fear of living in a post 9 11 world. Her work reminds me of Anita Shreve and the writing is as good as the story. I highly recommend this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    Great book group book

    My husband sometimes slips and calls my book group my playgroup. It makes me furious! Playgroups are for babies. Book groups are for smart readers who like to share thoughts on books. Totally different!

    Yet, in a way, he isn't all wrong. Let's face it playgroups are really more for the mothers than the babies. A playgroup is where the characters of Nichole Bernier's debut novel meet. When Kate meets Elizabeth, she thinks Elizabeth is one of those "perfect" mothers who is in love with baby, husband, and life. Yet, when Elizabeth dies suddenly and mysteriously wills her journals to Kate, Kate gets a very different picture of the woman she thought she knew.

    I think this is a book for this generation. Bernier has crafted a beautifully written and often heart wrenching novel that explores the complex topic of identity. What defines who we are? Career? Family? Choices? Fate? This book is sure to incite a lively discussion at your next book group meeting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 2, 2012

    Nichole Bernier hits it out of the park with this beautifully wr

    Nichole Bernier hits it out of the park with this beautifully written novel about friends, wives, mother's daughters, secrets and loss. Weaving a captivating story that can't help but touch the hearts of each and every woman who reads it, she examines what makes us tick, breaks our hearts and keeps us living! Absolutely riveting in it's style and stunning in exposing the vulnerability in us all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Did anyone see To Gillian on her 37th Birthday? That movie where

    Did anyone see To Gillian on her 37th Birthday? That movie where Peter Gallagher still mourns his dead wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who has looked 37 for about three decades now--I'd mourn her too) two years after her death? No, me neither. But I always imagined it was something like this book. Kind of sentimental, kind of sad, but mostly about how we hold on to our impression of a person even when the real person is dead and gone.

    Elizabeth has died a year earlier (at the age of 37, no less) and her family, and especially her best friend Kate, continue to idealize her as the perfect woman. It doesn't help that she died a month before September 11, 2001, in an unrelated plane crash, so the grief over her death becomes mixed in and intensified with the grief of the nation. When Kate learns that the task has fallen to her to read and sort through Elizabeth's journals--twenty-five years worth of them--she is faced with a very different image of her friend. It turns out Elizabeth had so many secrets that Kate starts to wonder if she ever really knew her at all.

    Told in both diary excerpts and third person narrative,The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is the sort of novel that women will pass around and discuss (I'm not saying men won't like it--I really don't know--but the book is truly about being a woman, being a wife and a mother, and the relationships between women and their female friends). At the very least, it's the sort of book that made me want to call my female friends and make sure they're okay. Really okay.

    Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2012

    I loved so many things about this book: 1) the central point: yo

    I loved so many things about this book: 1) the central point: you think you know someone, but you don't 2.) friendships, marriages and parenting experiences are complex and woven through with ambivalence, uncertainties and difficult choices, large and small 3) the small moments and turns of life are beautifully drawn throughout this story. Looking forward to Nichole Bernier's next book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2012

    Of memory and insight

    From the first paragraph's description of the George Washington Bridge, I found myself completely absorbed, intrigued, and enriched by this beautiful story of friendship, loss, and the journey to understand both. Ms. Bernier is skilled at capturing emotional resonance, the significance of small moments, and the necessity of vulnerability in friendship, marriage, and life. I loved this novel and am grateful that I now know of this wonderful new author. I look forward to Ms. Bernier's next work.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2013

    I thought this book was ok, but not great. The writing was fant

    I thought this book was ok, but not great. The writing was fantastic, however, the characters were a bit of a bore. I didn't like either of the husband's and both the female characters seemed like moms that belong to a playgroup I would want nothing to do with. I kept waiting for something good to happen, it was just depressing from beginning to end. I felt let down when I finished the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2013

    Kinda boring

    Not wild about this book. Plot too predictable. Took many words to get to the morale of the story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2013

    Engrossing read

    A very engrossing read about the nature of people, how we choose to present ourselves to others versus what or who we truly are inside, and whether it is possible to truly know anyone else. Well-written, it rang very true to me. Highly recommended.

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  • Posted February 19, 2013

    Great read

    I couldn't put the book down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2012

    Good, absorbing read.

    A wife and mother dies suddenly, leaving behind a trunk of journals which she stipulates be given to her best friend. Turns out the deceased woman had a lot of secrets that suggest one thing, but actually mean another. Makes you realize that we almost never know people the way we think we do. Enjoyble, thought-provoking, if not riveting.

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  • Posted October 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly recommend

    Reminds us we never really know "everything" about our friends but we can always be there for them no matter what the circumstance.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2012

    Highly recommend

    I was very moved by this book. As the main character discovers more about her deceased friend, I found myself looking into my own friendships a little deeper.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    Good Read

    I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was not predictable and had me wanting to continue reading. I would highly recommend this book.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews

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