The Dressmaker: A Novel

The Dressmaker: A Novel

by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250106964
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 827,692
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck has written for Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Working Woman, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck

Henry Holt and Co.

Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8514-7

Chapter One
Blossoms fluttered everywhere that morning outside the dressmaker's studio. They cascaded from above, settling at the base of the century-old apple tree like a pool of white satin at the hem of a wedding gown. Wedding gowns. Claude Reynaud had designed and sewn hundreds of them, but still, he thought, as he stitched on a lacy trim, they made him uneasy: the symbolism of the white dress, the secrecy of the veil, the surprise of the bride's sudden appearance before the slow, irrevocable procession down the aisle. . . .
A fresh breeze from the wide-open window interrupted his thoughts. Drawing in the scent of apple blossoms, Claude studied the gnarly trunked tree that his great-grandfather had planted a century ago. The sap ran through this tree's branches as surely as blood pulsed through his own body and those of the generations of gentle Reynauds before him, traditional dressmakers all.
But times were changing, as was Claude's clientele. Thanks to a favorable article in a widely read French national newspaper and several devoted clients, Monsieur Reynaud's talent had begun to attract sophisticated Parisiennes willing to drive forty minutes out of Paris to be "fitted." They broke the speed limit as they entered the humble town of Senlis, situated twenty-nine miles north of Paris as the crow flies, on the rue Vieille de Paris, an ancient thoroughfare for textile merchants traveling from Paris to Flanders.
Claude Reynaud and his assistant, Antoine Boudin, often called Vite Boudin--fast Boudin--by Parisians who preferred speed over all else, produced a dress, suit, or gown every three to four days. Now that it was early spring, wedding-dress season was in full swing.
As he sipped his caf� crà me and broke the brioche that his sister had dropped off that morning on her way to work, Claude reviewed his appointments for the day.
"PÃ?dant," he said, peering into the blinking green eyes of his tall, full-feathered blue-and-golden-fronted parrot, "we have a new client today. A Mademoiselle de Verlay. Referred by Madame de Champy. A July wedding."
He reread the note scrawled next to Mademoiselle de Verlay's name. The bride-to-be had given her dressmaker total freedom over the gown's design. Claude had never been awarded such trust for a bridal dress. Most affianced young women arrived at his studio clutching wrinkled magazine photographs of brides, convinced their childhood dreams of a fairy-tale wedding would be fulfilled to the last detail.
A bird, he could not tell what kind, suddenly crashed into the closed upper portion of the window. When Claude looked up, he noticed that the wind had died down momentarily and the apple tree's white gown of blossoms was complete.
Eleven a.m: a barely audible knock at the door. Despite the gentleness of the intrusion, Claude jumped. A woman entered, the wind urging her in from behind.
"Bonjour?" the voice called, out of the dark vestibule into the sunlit room.
Claude extended his hand. Long tapered fingers outstretched, a small face emerging out of a dark scarf, large smiling eyes, a pointed chin--these were Claude's first impressions of his new client.
"Bonjour. I'm Valentine de Verlay. Pleased to meet you." The words caught her breath in them; hers was a lovely, rich, windy voice.
Claude took her lightweight camel coat to the closet, noting as he did the dark brown sheath of hair resting just below her shoulders, the almond-shaped eyes, the smile on the corners of her lips. She strode into his studio with composed confidence, her head high. He scrutinized her attire: navy wool pants, wide-ribbed cappuccino cotton cardigan with sleeves that skimmed the knuckles of her hands, and another dark beige sweater, this one cashmere, tied around her neck. Simply elegant.
"Thank you for agreeing to design my wedding dress," she said. She looked directly at him; then, as if the gaze were too intense, she lowered her eyes, her face suddently veiled under a blanket of shyness. "Charlotte says you are very busy, but she insisted I ask for you."
"Bonjour! Bonjour!" PÃ?dant's words caught her attention.
"How delightful," she said, now at the parrot's side and smiling. "I love birds, but I'm not familiar with ones that speak. Bonjour to you!" She gently touched a blue feathered wing.
The front door slammed loudly and Antoine barged into the room. "Whom do we have here this morning? Antoine Boudin at your service," he said, taking the mademoiselle's hand in his own and bending in half to kiss it. "Shall I start pinning up?"
Claude had not prepared himself for Antoine. He wanted to experience his new client without interruption, to grasp her coloring, skin texture, shape, and personality.
Antoine Boudin had worked for him for two years, but Claude still felt the occasional urge to defend himself against the onslaught of Antoine's full-throttled chest, wide domed forehead, and penetrating brown eyes. In his assistant's presence, Claude felt small, like a shell-less escargot ready for eating. Claude imagined Antoine relishing the briny taste as he whipped the morsel around in his mouth.
As Antoine entreated the new client to accept a glass of water after the "arduous journey from Paris," Claude's eye lingered on the tilt in the long arc of her neck, her half smile.
"My notes indicate that you have no ideas, no preferences for this dress, mademoiselle. Is that correct?" asked Claude. PÃ?dant made scratching sounds. Claude wished he had placed the distracting bird in the other room.
"Mon Dieu, Claude," said Antoine, "why do you ask? Isn't it obvious? Can't you see her in a champagne satin gown with a robust bustle at the back? The bustle should have a long train, which would trail like a river down the church aisle." Antoine stretched out his arms and waved them to create the effect of a flowing river.
"Did you have any dress in mind?" Claude redirected the question to the woman.
Mademoiselle de Verlay paused before turning to face Claude. "I was told that you, Monsieur Reynaud, would choose a design that would suit me."
The spurned Antoine frowned and headed to his small sewing room.
Claude asked Mademoiselle de Verlay to step onto the platform that his grandfather had built a century ago, now a warped dark wood. She unwrapped the sweater she wore around her neck and took off her cardigan to reveal a white T-shirt: an unraveling. Within moments, Claude had memorized her measurements: square shoulders, small bust, wider curve at the hip, very long neck.
Delicately, Claude eased his worn yellow measuring tape along her neck, waist, arm length, leg, and torso. Unlike his father, who recorded every detail of a person's size, Claude kept no client files. He never forgot a body. His photographic mind easily memorized the distances between wrist and collarbone, hip and hip, ankle and waist. He used the measuring tape as a distraction while he absorbed skin, hair texture, color, and the way his client moved.
His greatest talent--and what he was becoming renowned for beyond the small town of Senlis--was his ability to match a client's natural colors with enhancing hues and textures. He obsessed over color classifications and names. Inadequate descriptions frustrated him to the point of fury. He would yell across his studio to PÃ?dant, "That is not the color pink! Non! That is the color of dawn reflected on the yellowing marble steps of the Trevi Fountain."
A beam of sunlight caught his client now--and the edge of his black work coat, upon which he noticed white dust. He thought of brushing it off but was afraid she would notice. She was squinting.
"There's too much glare in here," he said. "Shall I close a shutter?"
"No, please! Never too bright. I could sit in the sun all day."
"Mademoiselle may be fascinated to know that our dressmaker is the sole surviving practitioner of the ancient art of the measuring tape," yelled Antoine from the kitchen, where he was refilling his coffee cup. "In Paris, major design companies are using computers to record measurements in a matter of a few minutes. But our Claude, here, he swears by the 'touch' you get with a measuring tape."
Claude heard his assistant but refused to listen to him. He sensed the growing warmth of his client in the direct sunlight and noticed that his fingertips were moist with perspiration.
"I think I have it." He caught a glimpse of her smiling in the mirror at him. He stood up and rewound the tape into a tight circle. "I envision you in a white sleeveless tunic. A column of white to the floor, but not touching it, to accentuate your height, and white silk tulle, fluffy white tulle coming off the waist, flowing to the back of the dress, loosely floating into a pool of white at the back. No cream! Blanche, only the whitest of white. No thick veil, only a chignon, with a thin layer of tulle falling from a pearl comb and joining the pool on the floor. I must think more about the neckline." He paused, looking out the window at the apple tree for answers, then back at Mademoiselle de Verlay. "It should be a bateau neckline, straight across the shoulders: no curves."
"The veil! You must let me do the veil, Claude. I know the veil!" insisted Antoine, who now stood alarmingly close to their client. "The veil should be thin, as I said before, not tulle--non, non, too froufrou--but silk!"
Mademoiselle de Verlay's calm face changed color. Was it Antoine's proximity? Perhaps she was dismayed by the suggestion of a silk veil. Claude felt his own face redden. He tried to place the color of her eyes. Cornflower blue? No, the blue of the seaside in Brittany, when a cloud obscures the sun, but brighter still. No, blueberries, a bowl of summertime's dark blues in a white porcelain bowl.
Was it the mademoiselle's quietness that unsettled him? It wasn't that she was shy: some secret, some joke, a memory of something amusing lurked behind her smile. He studied her face as she gazed out the window: the eyelashes that turned up at the corners; the dark-brown straight hair curving around the shining pale face, its pointed chin like the period at the bottom of an exclamation mark. Most of all, he was taken by her eyes; they asked him to speak to her. Claude scolded himself back to the task at hand.
"Antoine," he said, "please entertain our client while I work up a preliminary sketch. Only a few minutes, mademoiselle."
"Mais bien sÃ"r!" exclaimed Antoine. "But you see, Claude, a computer would have produced the prelims for you." He offered Mademoiselle de Verlay a chair as he perched on the stool near her. "Claude." He sighed. "One day, he'll wake up to realize he's living in another century! I don't think I'm willing to wait for the alarm to go off!"
Only a short distance away, seated at the kitchen table with pencil and paper in hand, Claude listened attentively to Antoine's small talk.
"Where do you get that glow, mademoiselle? Surely not out of a bottle? You could light a dark seabed with a face as pearly white as yours. No, pearls do not do it justice. Only the moon . . ." Antoine moved in closer, his talk dimming to a whisper. "A waist like this! It is rare to witness a waist like this, so much curve. . . ."
Antoine was an accomplished flirt. He fine-tuned his smooth talk at every opportunity. Claude never gave Antoine's patter much thought; it had never seemed to offend his clients. Indeed, some confided to him, giggling, that they drove the forty minutes expressly to hear his assistant's sweet nothings.
But this morning, as the sun polished the tip of Mademoiselle de Verlay's earlobe, Claude felt oddly protective of her. She did not react, smiling or rejecting. Her face was quiet and composed. Had the edge of her lip lifted slightly?
"Monsieur Boudin, laisse-la tranquille! Enough, please." Claude glared at Antoine before offering Mademoiselle de Verlay a cup of coffee and the extra brioche from his sister.
"Non, merci, but I would love to see the drawing." She was standing close to Claude's shoulder.
"Mademoiselle, this is a rough sketch," he said firmly, trying to conceal his nervousness. "I will fax you the final sketches on Friday for your approval."
"Merci," she said, walking toward the door.
Antoine blocked her passage. He held her coat aloft. "Mademoiselle, allow me to escort you to your car."
"No, thank you," she said quickly, dipping her arms into the sleeves. "I can find my own way."
As if she had forgotten something, she turned and darted back into the room past Antoine and held her slender hand out to Claude.
"EnchantÃ?e, monsieur. Such a pleasure to meet you." She smiled and flung up her scarf in one motion. As she left, Claude envisioned a train of white silk tulle in her wake.
That afternoon the sky was so gray and low, Claude felt he could reach up and pull it down like a shade. Sketching Valentine de Verlay's tunic wedding dress only accentuated his sense of melancholy. Bouts of despondency were not unfamiliar to him. Sometimes, the dip lasted an hour, sometimes two days, occasionally several months. He usually managed to escape by focusing on his work. But today, designing yet another bridal gown prompted Claude to reflect on his own wedding: a mistake.
His marriage to Rose-Marie had not begun so well and had not ended so well. What was in the middle was also not so well. The beginning was his car accident en route to the church, when he had lurched into reverse instead of first gear and bumped the car behind him. The incident, with its usual fanfare of police and information gathering and one bent fender, delayed the ceremony by an hour. When he caught sight of her face between the white marble columns lining the interior of Notre-Dame de Senlis, Rose-Marie wore a red-lipped pout. Her brown eyes burned. "Comment? How could you have?"
The words stained even the earliest days of his marriage. He saw in her a cozy future of loving domesticity. She saw in him talent and escape from small-town life. It took only a few months to realize that the disappointment was mutual. On their first anniversary, Claude rejected an offer to work at a major couturier in Paris despite Rose-Marie's pleas to take the job.
"But this is the chance of your life! You have no choice!" The words were to become Rose-Marie's familiar refrain.
She had left him eight years ago. In their five years of marriage, they had had no children. She told him she was grateful for his talent and the clothes he had made for her, but she had grown tired of his ways and wanted to see the world. Her farewell complete, she squeezed through the narrow front vestibule, her two bulging brown suitcases banging at her heels. In all that time, he had not received so much as a word from her--not even legal documents asking for a divorce, which puzzled him, still.
With the next cool spring breeze through his window, Claude dropped the memory. Like a connoisseur, he sifted through the endless variations of apple-blossom scents delivered by the ever-changing breezes. Claude depended and thrived on the predictable rhythms of daily life. With a scientist's keen eye for detail, he observed the sun's daily patterns on the white-duck-clothed mannequin at the center of his studio. Every afternoon at four-thirty, he looked forward to the clanging of bells from the lycÃ?e across the street, signaling the end of the school day and the burst of children's voices on the worn white marble school steps.
He glanced at his watch after the second knell. Any moment now, his nephews would pour unannounced into his quiet abode and bombard him with hugs and demands for pastries and a puppet show. As if on cue, he heard them clamoring at the door.
Pell-mell, in the four boys thronged, romping around the few small rooms, throwing pillows from the bed in a domesticated form of rugby, fiddling with the hands of the grandfather clock, gobbling down Ã?clairs au chocolat and spinning the mannequin at the center of the studio, sending pins flying. The older boys, Henri and Jean-Hugues, professed themselves too grown-up for the show performed by their uncle Reynaud's hand-sewn puppets, but they watched anyway, glued to the action, until it was homework time and home-going time and they once again crammed out the old oak door, four at once, one on top of the other, schoolbags bursting out last.
Claude returned the puppets to their silk satchel behind the closet door, brewed a fresh cup of coffee, and tightened the belt on his work coat. This was the daily prelude to his evening work, when he found himself most productive. In the evening quiet after the bustle of morning sittings, appointments, and phone calls, the mannequin drew him to it like a magnet. Armored with thimbles, a pale green pincushion attached to his belt, his faded yellow tape measure around his neck, he pinned and unpinned the dark blue velvet, spinning the mannequin with each touch. He squinted to catch the overall effect as the mannequin whirled in a pinwheel of midnight blue. PÃ?dant shook his feathers and squawked. Claude smoothed the mannequin's shapely sides and paused, carefully scrutinizing his velvet creation. As the grandfather clock chimed 9 p.m., Claude declared his work finished. Stealing one last look at the mannequin in the mirror, he caught his own reflection. What a long nose he had, his mother's; intense dark eyes, his father's; wide cheekbones, whose? Smallish round lips, like his sister Juliette's. He touched the dark hair at his forehead, which had begun to thin and recede evenly on either side. He grabbed a handful of it at the back, still a good thick crop.
He returned his attention to the mannequin. As he touched the fabric, his gaze softened. PÃ?dant twitched, fluffing feathered wings before nestling his beak once again into cushioned plumage. The dressmaker paused in the velvety richness of the darkening, noiseless moment. Then, he switched on the overhead light and reached into the pantry closet for a handful of potatoes for dinner.
Copyright Â? 2006 by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck

Excerpted from Dressmaker by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Dressmaker are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Dressmaker.

Discussion Questions

1. Early in the book, on the subject of the fashion industry in France, Elizabeth Oberbeck writes, "times were changing," and much of the story deals with conflict between old-fashioned ways and modern ones. Do you think one way of life is favored over the other in this story? If so, how does the author demonstrate this? Does Claude's life in Senlis or his life in Paris seem more appealing to you?

2. What does it say about Valentine that she asks Claude to design her wedding dress without naming any criteria or making any demands? Is this willingness to give up control part of what draws Claude to her? Do you think it has any effect on the fate of her marriage and her relationship with Claude?

3. Nearly every time a character appears on the scene in the novel, their clothing is described. How does the author use clothing to suggest something about a character? What are some of the most memorable, most vividly described outfits in the book?

4. Do you think Valentine is happy in her relationship with Victor when she first meets Claude? If so, what is it about Claude that attracts her, and why does she get involved with him?

5. When Valentine and Claude are together in the wine cellar (page 47), she wants to smash the 1764 bottle of wine. "Let's be the last hands to touch it!" she says. Can you relate to Valentine's desire to destroy this relic? What do you think is behind this desire?

6. Are you surprised by how aggressively Claude pursues Valentine, considering how passive he has been up to this point (for example, on page 61 we read that "Claude would have remained married to Rose-Marie if she hadn't left him.")? Do you think he's wrong to do so? Is there any justification for actively pursuing someone you know to be engaged?

7. On page 63, Claude thinks to himself, "It has happened to me as well! I wasn't watching, and now I am an old man!" Do you think his fear of aging drives him in any way towards Valentine? (Doyou think it's possible that as people get older and see how much time has gone by, they are more likely to go after what they want, despite the risks involved?)

8. Look at Claude's encounter with the old man on the train (pages 70-71). Why do you think the author included this scene? What is its significance to the larger story?

9. When Valentine asks Claude why he doesn't move to Paris (page 87), he wonders if perhaps living in Paris would make him more attractive to her. Do you think he adapts to Valentine's expectations in the novel, transforms himself in order to win her? Do you think adapting is an essential part of attracting someone and falling in love, or do you believe that people are most likely to fall in love when they are truly themselves and conceal nothing?

10. "I know I should not say this to you, that it's careless, thoughtless, to say it, but I will! Since we've been apart, I've clung to you, unsuspectingly" (pages 148-149). In this and other passages, Valentine goes against her better judgment to confess her feelings to Claude. Do you think this is the right thing to do? Do you think she's leading him on, when in fact she intends to go back to her husband? If you were in Valentine's position, how would you handle it?

11. The Paris fashion house where Claude goes to work clearly operates on a very different set of principles from those that Claude's father taught him. What do you think the author is trying to say about creativity versus money-making? Do you think that portrait of the Paris fashion world is exaggerated or unfair? Do you think Claude should have stayed in Senlis, despite the limitations of his life there?

12. Pascale's death is clearly devastating to Claude, largely for the effect it has on his nephew. But do you think witnessing the relationship between Henri and PAscale has changed the way Claude thinks about his own life? How do you think it chanthoughts about Valentine?

Customer Reviews

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Dressmaker 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
None of the characters seemed 'into it'. So many details on fabric & color! Claude didn't seem as obsessed with Valentine as he did with his designs.Valentine came off as disconnected. The big finish felt thrown in to add a bit of drama. This story was all over the place, yet nowhere! It WAS NOT 'an irresistable love story!'
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book would not be a half bad read if there was just a little sparkle thrown in with the heavy writing in the novel. I ALWAYS finish a book, but this was definitely not a page turner.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this would be a love story and and easy read, but I found the opposite. This book was difficult for me to read as I really didn't feel any connections to the characters. The main character is supposed to be madly in love with one of his clients, but I found him to be a bit creepy. Also, I thought the author was trying to hard with her descriptions of the various clothing designs.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Not what I expected, and I'm glad it wasn't.
missmaya on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
meh. I wanted to enjoy this, but it never really got going for me. When my library time was up, I had no problem returning it unfinished.
booklover3258 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a good story about a dressmaker who falls in love with one of his clients that he makes a wedding dress for. I enjoyed the characters and how they all meshed well with the dressmaker, Claude. The ending was surprising and sad.
mrn945 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I picked up this novel, I was thinking I would get a sweet romance set partly in Paris, with descriptions of gorgeous clothes. I was only partly right. There is certainly a romance, and it is set in Paris. There are numerous descriptions of cloth and lines and clothing which I would cut off a limb for, though that would rather defeat the point.There was nothing however sweet about this romance. Forewarned is forearmed.That is not to say though that this was not a good novel; in fact it was great. It just wasn't what I was expecting. In my own defense, the back-cover (or front for that matter) hardly hinted at the darkness of this story.So, instead of a sweet enduring romance, we have this poor and completely sympathetic man whose life revolves around his clothing falling into a one-sided romance with a women about to be married. I should clarify that it is not entirely one-sided, though in the end we are still left wondering if she reciprocated or simply was fascinated that someone actually wanted her other than her fiance.I strongly suspect the second. The other women is not an entirely likely character, perhaps because you become so emotionally invested in the lead male early on in the novel. Again, this is not a fault of the author, in fact I think her character was written this way for a reason. Others may not develop the same spiteful hatred towards this women that I did, but then again, I tend to get emotional for the underdog.So, if you are looking for a light romance, this may not be quite right for you. This is a far more realistic portrayal of the roller-coaster of life than most may like to read. Despite my shock at the darkness (and the surprise ending!), I ultimately enjoyed the novel. I would recommend this book.
lasperschlager on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story sounded like it would be a very interesting one, however I almost didn't finish this book. I never felt that invested in finding out what happened with the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea was charming, but the execution was lifeless and disappointing.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
An absorbing tale of gifted French designer and his craft and his loves. Does such a talent exist in the real world? The novel was enjoyable, light reading. The author's attention to detail through the eyes of the protagonist was impressive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This debut novel by Elizabeth Oberbeck is enchanting! Ms. Oberbeck's lyrical and descriptive writing will transport you to France and the world of haute couture, while also engrossing you with the chemistry between the dressmaker and his muse. This beautiful book is a must read for Summer 2006.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As you open this book, you sense you are actually entering the dressmaker's atelier. You immediately sense the nature of this man, and the appeal of his love. He is a man who makes women into princesses on their special day. He is doomed, but who in love doesn't sometimes feel that way!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Senlis, France old school middle-aged tailor Claude Reynaud lives a double life. For his Paris clients he fashions fancy gowns while for his hometown clients he mends tears, sews buttons, and adjusts hemlines of mundane off the shelf items. Captivating Parisian Valentine de Verlay hires Claude to make her a wedding dress, but to his shock for the first time in his life the tailor falls in love.--------------- Claude realizes that he never truly loved his wife, who abandoned him eight years ago though they remain married. Meanwhile Valentine holds her dressmaker in high regard too as she falls in love with Claude. However, she refuses to break off her engagement to Victor Couturier though he pales next to kindhearted Claude. To remain near his beloved, Claude throws away his essence symbolized by his shop in the suburbs to join a major Paris designer label though he has no idea how survive in this attention shark infested world let alone get his beloved Valentine.---------------- This is an interesting character study starring an artisan who throws away his values for love that though shared emotionally with his soulmate, a relationship seems impossible. The lead duet is a fine pairing as the audience can feel for Claude who is willing do almost anything for his beloved and for Valentine feeling she must do the honorable thing by her fiancé. Though Victor is a caricature abusive brute, which takes way from the possibilities of this triangle, fans will enjoy Elizabeth Birkelund Overbeck¿s fine relationship drama.--------------- Harriet Klausner