The Woman Who Walked into Doors

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Overview

Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors will astonish readers with its heartrending story of a woman struggling to reclaim her dignity after marriage to an abusive husband and a worsening drinking problem. Paula Spencer recalls her contented childhood, the audacity she learned as a teenager, the exhilaration of her romance with Charlo, and the marriage to him that left her feeling powerless. Capturing both her vulnerability and her strength, Doyle gives Paula a voice that ...
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The Woman Who Walked into Doors

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Overview

Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors will astonish readers with its heartrending story of a woman struggling to reclaim her dignity after marriage to an abusive husband and a worsening drinking problem. Paula Spencer recalls her contented childhood, the audacity she learned as a teenager, the exhilaration of her romance with Charlo, and the marriage to him that left her feeling powerless. Capturing both her vulnerability and her strength, Doyle gives Paula a voice that is real and unforgettable.

Doyle's 1993 Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was hailed as "a small, resonant masterpiece . . . heartbreakingly right" (Entertainment Weekly). His latest book, his richest work yet, will astonish readers with its heartrending story of a woman struggling to reclaim her dignity after marriage to an abusive husband and a worsening drinking problem.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles Taylor

If Roddy Doyle hadn't earned his chops as a hugely entertaining pop novelist with The Barrytown Trilogy, he probably wouldn't be turning into such a fine "serious" novelist. The Barrytown Trilogy were comedies about the glue that holds families together. The humor came from the loving, blunt, unsentimental way the characters talked to each other. The books he's written since then, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and the new The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, are borderline tragedies whose protagonists are trying to keep their families from flying apart.

Paula Spencer is a 39-year-old mother of four, an alcoholic doing her damnedest to raise her kids alone since kicking out her abusive husband, Charlo. The novel begins with Paula being told that Charlo has been shot by the police after killing a woman in a bungled robbery attempt.

Writing in the first person for the first time (and in a woman's voice), Doyle has joined his plain-spoken style to a heightened sense of observation and a wounding emotional power. What's most devastating in the section where Paula details Charlo's abuse is its matter-of-factness. "A taxi to the hospital. He held my hand and put his free arm around my back to keep me steady. . . He chatted with the driver. He was relaxed, in control, looking fter me. . . He had just pulled my arm out of its socket, less than an hour before."

There's no self-pity in Paula, and Doyle doesn't shy away from the economic pragmatism (or Charlo's sexual magnetism) that keeps her in the marriage. What's toughest about Doyle's view of Catholic culture is that, like John N. Smith's film The Boys of St. Vincent, it has the guts to suggest that, in some basic way, abuse is the logical outcome of a culture where power belongs to a chosen few and it's the duty of the unlucky rest to suffer and serve. Paula's refusal to do that is the book's shaky affirmation, an unlikely example of how no can mean yes. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Ireland, the euphemism "she walked into a door" is so loaded with grim implications of domestic abuse that it is usually whispered, not spoken. In this astonishing new work from Doyle (whose most recent novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the 1993 Booker Prize), Dublin housewife and mother Paula Spencer narrates her life as a spouse who walks into doors. Hopelessly in love with heavy drinker and relentless sadist Charlo, Paula is gradually engulfed in psychic darkness, every last particle of self-esteem literally beaten out of her. The devastation of her world is made even more wrenching by her chatty, captivating storytelling, flush with Doyle's knack for Dublin humor, vernacular and local color. With this book, Doyle attains a new level of excellence. He writes about a woman's experience with a perception that is rare, a compassion that is scorching and an uncompromising frankness that splinters his heroine's suffering directly into the reader's heart. Doyle triumphs here, with a tough-minded but deeply moving exploration of a wretched marriage, a microcosm of a pervasive situation in Ireland that few will acknowledge.
Library Journal
Booker Prize winner Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, LJ 12/93) writes of a woman's recovery from alcoholism and an abusive marriage.
Library Journal
Booker Prize winner Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, LJ 12/93) writes of a woman's recovery from alcoholism and an abusive marriage.
Kirkus Reviews
A skillful mixture of buoyant farce and wrenching drama from the popular Irish author (The Commitments, 1987; Bookerwinner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, 1993, etc.).

Doyle's protagonist and narrator, Paula Spencer, will remind readers of the hilariously feisty, foulmouthed women of his earlier books. Indeed, Paula's a match for any of them as she recalls episodes from her experiences as competitive sibling and worldly- wise schoolgirl, moonstruck young wife, and, finally, embattled mother. And the core of her adult life is her terrified relationship with abusive husband Charlo, a charismatic monster whose unpredictable swings between tenderness and violence keep the hopeful Paula in a constant state of submissive confusion. ("He loved me and he beat me. I loved him and I took it. It's as simple as that, and as stupid and complicated.") Charlo's uncontrollable thuggishness eventually removes him from her life for good, but that isn't the end of her trouble. Doyle's masterly use of jabbing, staccato sentences and emotional repetitions produces a nervous intensity that exactly reproduces how his heroine—and she is that, no other word will do—lives out her imperilled days. The novel is filled with sharply observed, amusingly distinctive characters, including even Paula's young children. Hardly any other writer alive can create families and neighborhoods full of mutually involved people with such easy authority. And nobody alive uses filthy language with such exuberant expressive virtuosity. Only in the closing pages, when Doyle's empathy with his character's plight takes on some of the righteous quality of a case study, does the grip falter. Even so, few readers will be able to look away even for a moment.

Some may object that Doyle, having perfected a winning formula, is merely writing the same raucous story of small-town Irish life over and over. Well, let them. It's a bloody wonderful story.

From the Publisher
“Roddy Doyle’s unsparing examination of a brutal marriage transcends the boundaries of class and nationhood.”
The Times

“Paula Spencer may be Doyle’s most successful literary creation yet, a tour de force of literary ventriloquism that gives the lie to the old writing workshop canard that a man can’t write from the point of view of a woman, let alone in her voice.”
Washington Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140255126
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 588,587
  • Lexile: 360L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958. He is the author of six acclaimed novels including the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Paula Spencer is the narrator and unlikely heroine of Roddy Doyle's fifth novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The mother of four children, she lives in a working-class suburb of Dublin. She is also a battered wife and an alcoholic. Paula's husband, Charlo, has been killed while escaping the scene of a crime he committed. Though Paula threw him out a couple of years ago, she recalls their early times together, filled with joy and lust. She remembers her rebellious adolescence, boys she dated and fantasized about, family outings, and summers at the sea, and she reflects on the events in her life that brought her to where she is today.

Doyle's portrait of a working-class woman in contemporary Ireland illuminates many of the problems facing that country's working poor, yet Paula is a wonderfully unique character—honest about her feelings, fearless in her efforts to protect her family, subject to fits of anger and depression that threaten to undo all that she has accomplished. Doyle takes his time revealing Paula to us. This account of her life is not chronological but spiraling, driven by memory and recurring images that spark these memories. Roddy Doyle's lean prose and his uncanny ear for dialogue brilliantly offset the drama that unfolds as Paula tells her story. It is this restraint that makes his writing so compelling, that allows us to accept, understand, and champion Paula in her struggle to reclaim her dignity.

Roddy Doyle jokingly acknowledges that he might have titled the novel Paula Spencer Boo Hoo Hoo. However, there is no doubt that he has reached a new level of mastery in this deceptively complex portrait of a woman and a family in trouble.

ABOUT RODDY DOYLE

For fourteen years he taught high school geography and English in North Dublin, but during his holidays and spare time he concentrated on writing fiction. His efforts have made him one of Ireland's most popular authors. He is the author of four previous novels, the first of which, The Commitments, was made into Alan Parker's 1991 hit movie. His second novel,The Snapper. was also made into a movie, with a screenplay by Doyle and directed by Stephen Frears.The Van was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize; Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993. Doyle has also written two plays, Brownbread and War, which enjoyed successful runs in Dublin. His four-part series, Family, was written for the BBC and was aired in England and Ireland to great acclaim, attention, and controversy over its handling of the topic of domestic abuse. It was through writing the teleplay for Family that the story of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors emerged.

Since winning the Booker Prize, Doyle has ventured further into filmmaking. The film version of The Van, for which he wrote the screenplay, is slated to be released later this year, but he says he prefers writing fiction to other mediums.

A CONVERSATION WITH RODDY DOYLE

Much of the praise for your last novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, was directed at your uncanny portrayal of a ten-year-old boy. Now you've chosen the perspective of a middle-aged woman, and she may be one of the most fully realized characters of all your novels. How did she develop? What resources do you draw from? How does it feel to write from the point of view of the opposite sex?

The story originated about five years ago when I was invited by the BBC to write a television series about a struggling Irish family. Each installment was presented from the viewpoint of a different character: the father, a son and daughter, and the mother. What I found was, when I wrote the character of the mother, I realized she had much more to say, that the story lay with her. And so I set out to write the novel about her. I did a fair amount of research about biology and psychology, of women's erotic fantasies, and about the issue of spousal abuse. I'd done research for other novels, but this was the first time I felt it was really imperative, the first time I'd really relied on research. I've always been a reader of women's fiction and that has helped. But it was very slow going writing from the point of view of a woman. You sort of take on the role of an actor. I had to be very careful.

Many of Paula's memories of Charlo are happy ones, yet he really does come across as a cruel, irresponsible bum. How do you feel about him? Do you perceive goodness in him?

Well, the series started out from Charlo's point of view, and he really was a brute—in fact it caused quite a controversy. But when it came to shaping his character in the novel, I wanted to make it clear that he really had loved Paula. I think the scene from their wedding day shows that. It seems that society wants to find a scapegoat in these situations: unemployment, alcoholism, and of course abusive husbands. But there's a reason why these marriages happen and I wanted to show that, show why Paula stays with him for as long as she does. Of course, the distance of time helps her see things more clearly, even helps her forgive him. I also tried to inject a bit of humor into his character. The way he dies, in a car, when he doesn't even know how to drive.

Popular music plays a pivotal role in some of your earlier work. It has a different, more subtle effect in this novel, setting up a kind of background against which Paula spins her fantasies and replays her memories. Obviously, music is very important to you, but how—and why—does it find its way into your writing?

I think I'm no different from most people in my appreciation for music. I think everybody has a soundtrack to their lives. For Paula most of this music occurred in the late '60s and early '70s, during her adolescence—which she remembers rightly or wrongly as a happy time. And the music sort of matches that. It's pop music—very upbeat and romantic. She can't remember much music from the '80s, but that was a very unhappy time for her, when things with Charlo were going badly. I also used music as an ironic accompaniment. For instance, Paula hums a Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," to herself one night when she's drunk in the house with the kids asleep. I can't think of a better use for a Disney tune! But most of these pieces of music came to me while I was writing the novel. I didn't really plan them out beforehand.

Your early work is filled with rapid-fire dialogue and with humor that helps alleviate—and even celebrate—the hardships of working-class life. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha you used humor to make the darkness more tolerable. In this novel the humor is less prevalent and the novel is driven less by dialogue than by a strong narrative voice. What's the reason behind this evolution?

I don't really think of it as an evolution. Both Paddy Clarke and this novel are written in first person, so using a lot of dialogue didn't make sense. You have to use interior monologue, and it makes for a different type of book. The pages are fatter. Also, when you use a lot of dialogue the reader listens a lot. With more narrative the reader really needs to read. It takes more time to write this way, but I have more time now than I did when I was teaching.

You were brought up in a stable middle-class home, yet your writing turns again and again to the working classes, and to families experiencing the mixed blessings of joy and tragedy. Why is that?

Reality is a big umbrella, and I really am writing about families that could be real. The Rabbitte family, which I write about in the first three novels, is a wonderful family. They're very warm, very intelligent, but there's some dark stuff as well: unwanted pregnancies, unemployment. There's a son who's left whom they never hear from. But they're surviving, and there's a lot of love there. Well, after three novels I felt I'd explored them as much as possible. I think of the Spencers as their next door neighbors, figuratively speaking. Their story is a little different, and the tone has to match that. But I don't think my work is getting darker. I don't see it as a "maturing," the way some critics have. In fact, my next novel will probably be a lot lighter, with a lot more humor in it.

The issue of spousal abuse and the cause of battered women loom here in the U.S. headlines these days. How are these issues being addressed in Ireland? Why did you choose to deal with these issues in your work?

I think the country is much more open now, they're beginning to pass legislation on the issue. You know, they passed a referendum last November to allow divorce. I think people realize that some marriages are just bad situations. Part of this came about as a result of the Family series, I believe. About one-half the households of Ireland watched it. But I'm primarily a writer, and I don't set out to write about issues. This novel came about as a result of the work I did on that series; the idea of domestic violence came out of Charlo's character.

In 1993, you won the coveted Booker Prize. How has winning the prize affected your work? Do you feel more freedom to do what you want?

Well, to be honest I view the Booker the same way I do the Oscars. It's a lot of fun, but I don't really take the prize that seriously, and I certainly won't be upset if I don't win another one. I don't think it's influenced my writing at all, really. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was a great success, and I'm very pleased about that. I started writing The Woman Who Walked Into Doors before I won the Booker for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and I think this is a better book. And if it doesn't do as well commercially, that's okay.

Do you view yourself as part of the Irish literary tradition? Which writers have been influential in your work?

I'm not sure what the Irish literary tradition is. People keep dragging out the same names and, frankly, there aren't that many of them. I think if I were to hop on the train of great Irish writers I'd be pushed right off. I'm Irish and I'm a writer, and I'm definitely influenced by the place and the language. You know, the country's largely Catholic, and that comes through in my writing, even though I'm not a Catholic myself. As for literary influences, I think I've been influenced by every book I've ever read. But certain books come to mind. I read Doris Lessing's A Proper Marriage some time ago and that had a tremendous effect on me. Also I read Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, which helped me in the scenes in which Paula is revisiting the pivotal incident in her life, when Charlo hit her for the first time. Richard Ford's Wildlife comes to mind as well. It helped me a lot when I was writing Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. A lot of writers say they don't read fiction when they're writing their own, but I don't have a problem with that at all. I'm always reading. Right now I'm reading A Goat's Song by Dermot Healy, an Irish writer, and it's magnificent.

Who did you read when you were younger?

Well, I grew up in a house filled with children, and there were always books around. I remember reading a lot of Enid Blighton—I think she's written something like a hundred books, and I think my sisters had a lot of them. I also read a lot of books about football, for some reason. Later, in high school, I remember reading John Irving and really liking him. And my friends and I passed around books that we liked. I remember reading Flann O'Brien, who's really quite funny.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a screenplay about an Irish family during the potato famine. It's a lot different writing screenplays than novels. It's draining, but in a different way. It seems to take a lot less out of you. I'm also working on a new novel, but I don't want to say much about it yet because it could change; I've only just started it.

Are you surprised at your success?

Oh yes. Five novels in ten years. If you'd told me when I first started writing that that's what I would have produced by now I wouldn't have believed you. But I'm very happy, and if I'm not always a success, that's okay. I'm not one of these people that feels tortured by their work. I generally work until about five o'clock and then I'm done, even if I'm in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. You see, it's just a job, really, and I have to help my wife get dinner for the kids.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The Woman Who Walked Into Doors does not progress chronologically, but rather through a series of vignettes that dart back and forth in time. How does the "spiral" effect drive the story forward?
     
  • We don't get an objective introduction to Paula Spencer until midway through the novel, when she presents us with the "facts" of her life. Why does Doyle wait so long to give us information? How does the delay affect the novel and your view of Paula?
     
  • Paula replays scenes from her childhood and youth over and over in her head. Why do you think she does this? What is the function of memory in this novel?
     
  • What roles do fantasy and denial play in the novel? Is there a difference between Paula's romantic fantasies and her denial of family history? Is Paula doing herself any harm by not facing the truth, as Carmel would have her believe?
     
  • One of the most compelling scenes in the novel takes place when Paula goes searching for the key to the liquor cabinet. What makes this scene so riveting? How does Doyle convey an alcoholic's desperation?
     
  • What makes Paula visit the Fleming estate—the scene of Charlo's crime—and why does she mentally re-create the events that took place there?
     
  • "I keep blaming myself," says Paula. "After all the years and the broken bones and teeth and torture I still keep blaming myself. I can't help it. What if? What if?" Why does Paula blame herself? Does this make her more, or less, of a victim? How so?
     
  • Paula describes the dating scene when she was an adolescent as a cat-and-mouse game in which girls and boys became involved with each other without getting to know one another; without, in fact, both of them knowing they are involved. How does Doyle set up the story of Paula's marriage with this explanation? How do Paula's other adolescent and early experiences come into play in her later life?
     
  • How do Paula's and Charlo's families interfere with and dictate the marriage they will have? Paula admits the relief she felt giving up her last name for Charlo's. Do you think Paula would have been happier not marrying Charlo?
     
  • Paula repeatedly makes the comment that people "do not see her." What does she mean by this? How does this observation make you understand her actions and inaction?
     
  • In the novel's opening scene, Paula is informed of her husband's death by a young policeman. They have what appears to be a very casual conversation, and in fact, Paula doesn't find out how her husband died until much later. What does this tell you about Paula?
     
  • Paula finds herself forgiving Charlo: "He couldn't drive.... The poor eejit, he never got round to it. The kidnapper who couldn't drive." Do you feel any sympathy for Charlo? Do you think Doyle wants the reader to forgive him?
     
  • Paula finds solace in her children, yet she admits to occasionally striking them and neglecting them when she is drunk. Do you think that she is a good parent? The best parent she can be under the circumstances?
     
  • The novel ends with a hopeful scene which chronologically belongs somewhere in the middle of the story. Yet defeat and resignation are pervasive themes in the novel. Do you get the sense that Paula will triumph over her alcoholism? Do you think she'll find happiness in her life?
     
  • Roddy Doyle's first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, were made into critically acclaimed films, and the movie version of The Van will soon be completed. It is therefore interesting that the plot of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors originated in a teleplay about a troubled Irish family. What is it about certain novels that makes them great movies? What is it about Roddy Doyle's writing that adapts so well to the screen? Can you recognize dramatic elements in this novel that might have served Doyle in transforming spoken dialogue into written narrative?
     
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2012

    Excellent

    This novel was written by a man but really gets into the heart of a woman. It tells the story of an alcoholic, poor battered Irish woman. It is told with sensitivity and heart. The stream of consciousness storyline only reinforced the chaos that characterised her life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 17, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Depiction of a Womans Battered Soul

    This is the first book I have ever read by Roddy Doyle. The story is told with both accuracy and sensitivity yet it took off on a few directions which made it drag a bit. The author really didn't get into Paula Spencer's battered soul until the last 50 pages or so. It took a lot of pre story to get to that point. I was hoping to get a bit more on life being a victim of domestic violence. I will say it was wel written and an acurate story told by a male author. He shows some sensitivity which was nice.

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  • Posted October 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Simply Amazing

    I had to read this book for an advanced reading class and I have to say out of all the books we had to read, this one was my absolute favorite. I never read a book that implemented that writing style, the confusion and intermixing of past present and current timing really pulled me. I felt this woman's pain; I questioned her sanity, her choices and even her uncertain future. It was a very good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2007

    the woman who couldn't stop reading

    I am a huge Roddy Doyle fan and this lives up to my expectations of him. I loved Paddy Clarke HA HA HA and look forward to reading Paula Spencer. This story was moving and gripping and ultimately very sad. You could feel the pain and the struggle against the bottle and her confusion of why she stayed married to the man who beat her. She freely admitted that she loved him too much to leave. The way she felt about her children was so honest. It is so hard to believe that this was written by a man and not an abused/ alchoholic woman.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2000

    Clumsiness

    Roddy Doyle¿s latest novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, is not a book that I fell immediately in love with. Doyle speaks through the voice of Paula Spencer, a woman recovering from both alcoholism and an abusive marriage. His plot jumps around erratically; the chapters jolt from her husband¿s death to Paula¿s early relationship with him. Stylistically bare, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is Doyle¿s assertion against domestic violence. However, despite the confusing plot and the Doyle¿s blatant solicitation of emotions, Paula Spencer has a realness and an honesty that caught me by surprise. The novel opens with a young, nervous Guard at Paula¿s door. She knows before he even tells her that her husband is dead. The next chapter is Paula¿s first encounter with Charlo Spencer¿her future husband. The rest of the novel jumps back and forth from Paula¿s struggle with alcoholism to her days in grade school and to her wedding night. Its erratic plot lends disorder to the story, a characteristic that does not necessarily detract. Instead, it adds to the sense that Paula is speaking to, almost chatting with, the reader. Reminiscent of a made-for-television movie on Lifetime, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is obviously making a political statement¿Paula constantly cries for someone to notice her plight. ¿I¿d have told them everything, I swear to God I would have. If they¿d asked. I¿d have whispered it. If they¿d asked first¿ (202). Doyle is trying to provoke action about domestic violence, and chooses to use the voice of a woman struggling with it herself, rather than by making a generalized statement about abusive relationships. He finds a powerful means to get his point across with Paula Spencer¿s believable genuineness. Paula¿s character has an honesty and a dignity that make it hard to believe she is fictional. Roddy Doyle¿s voice has brilliantly disappeared, and Paula comes alive as a human being¿with both strengths and faults. She loses herself in her own lies, ¿Once, I heard a woman near me telling the nurse that she¿d walked into a door, and I believed her. I felt sorry for her¿ I never once thought that I wasn¿t the only one who¿d been put there by her husband¿ (200). Her sincerity is tragic and convincing at the same time. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is not an easy novel to like¿nor is it easy to forget. Despite a confusing plot, and a cry for action against domestic violence, Roddy Doyle makes Paula Spencer a completely convincing character. He manages to tell her story through her eyes¿without an apology, and without self-pity. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is a moving novel¿powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

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