Social Creature: A Novel

Social Creature: A Novel

by Tara Isabella Burton
Social Creature: A Novel

Social Creature: A Novel

by Tara Isabella Burton


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One of the Best Books of the Year:
Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Social Creature is a wicked original with echoes of the greats (Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn)." —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

For readers of Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, a dark, propulsive and addictive debut thriller, splashed with all the glitz and glitter of New York City.

They go through both bottles of champagne right there on the High Line, with nothing but the stars over them... They drink and Lavinia tells Louise about all the places they will go together, when they finish their stories, when they are both great writers-to Paris and to Rome and to Trieste...

Lavinia will never go. She is going to die soon.

Louise has nothing. Lavinia has everything. After a chance encounter, the two spiral into an intimate, intense, and possibly toxic friendship. A Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age, this seductive story takes a classic tale of obsession and makes it irresistibly new.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525436416
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 243,447
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

TARA ISABELLA BURTON is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for Travel Writing, she completed her doctorate in 19th century French literature and theology at the University of Oxford and is a prodigious travel writer, short story writer and essayist for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist's 1843 and more. She is the former Religion Correspondent for Vox, lives in New York, and divides her time between the Upper East Side and Tbilisi, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Tara Isabella Burton

THE FIRST PARTY LAVINIA TAKES LOUISE TO, she makes Louise wear one of her dresses.

“I found it on the street,” Lavinia says. “It’s from the twenties.”

Maybe it is.

“Someone just left it there. Can you believe it?”

Louise can’t.

“They probably just thought it was trash.” She puckers her lips. She puts on lipstick. “And that is the problem with people. Nobody understands what things mean.”

Lavinia fiddles with Louise’s collar. Lavinia ties the sash around Louise’s waist.

“Anyway, the second I saw it—Christ! I wanted to—oh, I just wanted to genuflect, you know? Kiss the ground—do Catholics kiss the ground, or is that just sailors? Anyway, I wanted to put my mouth right there on the sidewalk on somebody’s chewed gum and say, like, thank you, God, for making the world make sense today.”

Lavinia puts powder on Louise’s cheeks. Lavinia adds rouge. Lavinia keeps talking.

“Like—it’s all so fucking perfect, right? Like—somebody’s grand-mother or whoever, dies in some random brownstone in the East Village nobody’s even visited in twenty years and they dump all her shit out into the street and then at sunset—here I am walking across East Ninth Street and I find it. This old woman and I who have never met have these two beautiful, poetic, nights ninety years apart, wearing the exact same dress—oh, Louise, can’t you just smell it?”

Lavinia shoves the lace in Louise’s face.

“You could fall in love,” says Lavinia, “wearing a dress like that.”            Louise inhales.

“So you know what I did?”

Lavinia gives Louise a beauty mark with her eyebrow pencil.

“I stripped down to my underwear—no, that’s a lie; I took my bra off, too. I took off everything and I put on the dress and I left my other one in the street and I walked all night, wearing it, all the way back to the Upper East Side.”

Lavinia does Louise’s buttons.

Now Lavinia is laughing. “Stick with me long enough,” she says,

“and I promise—things will just happen to you. Like they happen to me.”

Lavinia does Louise’s hair. At first she tries to do it, like she’s done her own: savagely and exuberantly tendriled. But Louise’s hair is too flat, and too straight, and so instead Lavinia braids it into a tight, neat bun.

Lavinia puts her hands on Louise’s cheeks. She kisses her on the forehead. She roars.

“God,” says Lavinia.“You look so beautiful. I can’t stand it. I want to kill you. Let’s take a picture.”

She takes out her phone. She makes it a mirror.

“Let’s stand against the peacock feathers,” Lavinia says. Louise does.


Louise doesn’t know how.

“Oh, please.” Lavinia waves the phone. “Everybody knows how to pose. Just, you know: Arch your back a little. Tilt your head. Pretend you’re a silent-film star. There. There—no, no, chin down. There.”

Lavinia moves Louise’s chin. She takes their photo.

“The last one’s good,” Lavinia says. “We look good. I’m posting it.” She turns the phone to Louise. “Which filter do you like?”

Louise doesn’t recognize herself.

Her hair is sleek. Her lips are dark. Her cheekbones are high. She’s wearing a flapper dress and she has cat’s eyes and fake lashes and she looks like she’s not even from this century. She looks like she’s not even real.

“Let’s go with Mayfair. It makes your cheekbones look shiny.
Christ—look at you! Look. At. You. You’re beautiful.”

Lavinia has captioned the photo: alike in indignity.

Louise thinks this is very witty.

Louise thinks: I am not myself.

Thank God, Louise thinks. Thank God.

They cab it to Chelsea. Lavinia pays.

It’s New Year’s Eve. Louise has known Lavinia for ten days. They have been the best ten days of her life.

Days don’t go like this for Louise.

Louise’s days go like this:

She wakes up. She wishes she hasn’t.

 Chances are: Louise hasn’t slept much. She works as a barista at this coffee shop that turns into a wine bar at night, and also writes for this e-commerce site called GlaZam that sells knockoff handbags, and is also an SAT tutor. She sets an alarm for at least three hours before she has to be anywhere, because she lives deep in Sunset Park, a twenty-minute walk from the R, in the same illegal and roach-infested sublet she’s been in for almost eight years, and half the time the train breaks down. When they call her, once every couple of months, Louise’s parents invariably ask her why she’s so stubborn about moving back to New Hampshire, say, where that nice Virgil Bryce is a manager at the local bookstore now, and he won’t stop asking for her new number. Louise invariably hangs up.

She weighs herself. Louise weighs one hundred fourteen and a half pounds on a period day. She puts on her makeup very carefully. She draws on her brows. She checks her roots. She checks her bank balance (sixty-four dollars, thirty-three cents). She covers up the flaws in her skin.

She looks in the mirror.

Today, she says—out loud (a therapist she had once told her that it’s always better to say these things out loud)—is the first day of the rest of your life.

She makes herself smile. Her therapist told her to do that, too.

Louise walks the twenty minutes to the subway. She ignores the catcaller who asks her, every morning, how her pussy smells, even though he’s probably the only person in the world she interacts with regularly. She spends the ride into Manhattan staring at her reflection in the darkened subway windows. Back when Louise was sure she was going to be a go-down-in--history Great Writer she used to take a notebook and use the commute to write stories, but now she is too tired and also she probably will never be a writer; so she reads trashy Misandry! articles on her phone and sometimes watches peo- ple (Louise enjoys watching people; she finds it calming; when you spend a lot of time focusing on the things wrong with other people you worry less about everything wrong with you).

Louise goes to work as a barista, or at GlaZam, or to give an SAT lesson.
   She likes lessons best. When she speaks with her very carefully cul- tivated mid-Atlantic accent and puts her very carefully dyed blonde hair into a bun and alludes to the fact that she went to school in Devonshire, New Hampshire, she gets $80 an hour, plus the satis- faction of having fooled somebody. Now if Louise had actually gone to Devonshire Academy, the boarding prep school, and not just the public Devonshire High, she’d get $250, but the kind of parents who can pay $250 are more assiduous in checking these things.

Not that most people ever check these things. When Louise was sixteen, she took to leaving her house early and eating breakfast and dinner at the Academy’s dining hall. She made it a whole three months, watching people, before anybody noticed, and even then it was just her mother who found out, and grounded her, and by the time she was allowed out of the house again she’d started AIM- chatting Virgil Bryce, who didn’t like it when she went anywhere without him.

Louise finishes work.

She looks in her phone-mirror, a few times, to make sure she’s still there. She checks Tinder, even though she hardly responds to anybody she matches with. There was one guy who seemed really feminist online but turned out to practice relationship anarchy; and another who was really into kink in ways that she was never entirely sure were not abusive; and one guy who was really great, actually, but he ghosted her after two months. Sometimes Louise considers going out with somebody new, but this seems like just another thing to potentially fuck up.

Sometimes, if Louise has been paid cash that week, she goes to a really nice bar: on Clinton or Rivington, or on the Upper East Side.

She orders the nicest drink she can afford (Louise can’t really afford to be drinking at all, but even Louise deserves nice things, sometimes). She sips her drink very, very slowly. If she doesn’t eat dinner (Louise never eats dinner) the alcohol will hit her harder, which is a relief, because when Louise gets drunk she forgets the invariable fact that she is going to fuck everything up one day, if she hasn’t already, whether it’s because she loses all her jobs at once and gets evicted or because she gains twenty pounds because she is too tired to exercise and then not even the catcaller will want to fuck her or because she’ll get throat cancer from all the times she has made herself throw up all her food or because she will get another kind of even rarer and more obscure cancer from all the times she obsessively dyes her hair in a bathroom without ventilation or she will fuck up by unblocking Virgil Bryce on social media or else because she will get into another relationship in which a man who seems nice on Tinder wants to save her, or else to choke her, and she will do whatever he says because the other way to fuck it all up is to die alone.

Louise waits until she sobers up (another very certain way to fuck up is to be a drunk woman alone in New York at night), and then she takes the subway home, and although Louise no longer writes in her notebook, if she is still tipsy enough to feel that the apocalypse is no longer imminent she tells herself that tomorrow, when she is that little bit less tired, she will write a story.

They say if you haven’t made it in New York by thirty, you never will.

Louise is twenty-nine.

Lavinia is twenty-three.

This is how they meet:

Lavinia’s sister, Cordelia, is sixteen. She’s at boarding school in New Hampshire—not Devonshire Academy but one of its rivals. She’s home for Christmas break. Their parents live in Paris. Lavinia found one of Louise’s SAT TUTOR? AVAILABLE NOW! flyers at The Corner Bookstore on Ninety-third and Madison, which has a free Christmas champagne reception Louise has been crashing for three years, even though she lives so far away, just to drink for free and watch rich, happy families be happy and rich.

“I’m afraid I don’t know a damn thing,” Lavinia says over the phone. “But Cordy’s brilliant. And I know I’ll corrupt her—unless somebody else is there to stop me. You know what I mean. A good influence. And anyway she’s here for a whole week before she goes to Paris for Christmas and we’ve watched every single Ingmar Berg- man DVD in the house and now I’m all out of ideas to keep her off the streets. I can pay. How much does a person pay for these things? You tell me.”

“One fifty an hour,” says Louise.


“I’ll start tonight,” Louise says.

Lavinia lives in a floor-through brownstone apartment on Seventy- eighth Street between Park and Lex. When Louise arrives on the stoop, there is opera blaring from an open window, and Lavinia is singing along, off-key, and this is how Louise figures out that Lavinia lives on the second floor without even having to check the buzzer.

Lavinia has flowers in all of her window boxes. All of them are dead.

Lavinia answers the door in a sleeveless black dress made entirely of feathers. Her hair comes down to her waist. It is wild, and coarse, and she has not brushed it in days, but it is the hue of blonde Louise has spent many hours experimenting with drugstore dyes to achieve, only it is natural. She is not tall but she is thin (Louise tries to calculate exactly how thin, but the feathers get in the way), and she fixes her eyes on Louise with such intensity that Louise instinctively takes a step back: half--knocking into a vase filled with dead lilies.

Lavinia doesn’t notice.

“Thank God you’re here,” she says.

Cordelia is sitting at the dining-room table. She is wearing her hair in one long thick braid, coiled and pinned. She doesn’t look up from her book.

There are antique hand fans all over the walls. There is a gold- embroidered caftan hanging on a wall, and a powdered wig on the head of a mannequin whose features are drawn in lipstick, and there are several illustrated tarot cards—the High Priestess, the Tower, the Fool -- in rusty art nouveau frames on all the surfaces in the room. The walls are all a regal, blinding blue, except for the moldings, which Lavinia has made gold.

Lavinia kisses Louise on both cheeks.

“Make sure she goes to bed by ten,” she says, and leaves.

“She does that.”

Cordelia finally looks up.

“She isn’t really that oblivious,” she says. “That’s just her sense of humor. She thinks it’s funny to tease me. And you.”

Louise doesn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry,” says Cordelia. “I started studying already.” Her smile twists at the edges.

She makes Louise a pot of tea.

“You can have chocolate-vanilla or you can have hazelnut- cinnamon-pear-cardamom,” she says. “Vinny doesn’t have any normal tea.”

She serves it in an intricately patterned teapot (“It’s from Uzbeki- stan,” Cordelia says. Louise doesn’t know if this is a joke). She sets it down on a tray.

Cordelia forgets a teaspoon, although there is one in the sugar pot, but after the second cup Louise realizes if she stirs the tea it will wet the spoon and then ruin the sugar. If she keeps the spoon dry the sugar will settle in the cup.

Louise sips her tea without any sugar in it. She briefly considers asking for another spoon, but the thought of doing this makes her nervous, and so Louise doesn’t say anything at all.

They do SAT words: What is the difference between lackluster, laconic, and lachrymose? They do math: all the 3-4-5 triangles, sur- face areas of different shapes. Cordelia gets all the questions right.

“I’m going to Yale,” Cordelia says, like that’s a thing people just decide. “Then I’m going to a pontifical university in Rome for my master’s. I’m going to be a nun.”

Then: “I’m sorry.”

“For what.”

“I’m trolling you. I shouldn’t. I mean—I do want to be a nun. But even so.”

“That’s okay,” says Louise.

She drinks another cup of sugarless hazelnut-cinnamon-pear- cardamom tea.

“I feel guilty,” says Cordelia. “Keeping you here. I don’t really need a tutor. Don’t feel bad—I mean, you’re doing a very good job. Sorry. It’s just—I know all this already.” She shrugs. “Maybe Vinny really does want you to be my babysitter. Only—she won’t be back by ten.”        

“That’s okay,” Louise says. “I trust you to make your own bed-

“That’s not an issue.” Cordelia smiles her strange half-smile again. “Vinny’s the one with the cash.”

Cordelia and Louise sit in silence on the sofa until six in the morn- ing. Cordelia puts on a dressing gown covered in cat hair (there is no cat to be seen) and reads a paperback copy of John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Louise reads clickbait articles from Misandry! on her phone.

She is very tired, but she also needs four hundred fifty dollars more than she needs sleep.

Lavinia comes home at dawn, covered in feathers.

“I’m so terribly, terribly sorry,” she exclaims. She trips over the threshold. “Of course, I’ll pay you for the hours. Every hour. Every one.”

She catches her skirt in the door. It rips.


Feathers slice the air as they fall.

All my pretty chickens,” Lavinia cries. She gets on her hands and knees. “All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam.”

“I’ll get some water,” Cordelia says.

“It’s a bad omen.” Lavinia has fallen over, now, laughing, with a black feather in her hand. “It means death!”

Louise grabs the trailing feathers from underneath the door.

“No, don’t! Let them be!”

Lavinia grabs Louise’s wrists; she pulls her in.

“It died a noble death.” She hiccups. “This dress—it has been felled in battle.” Her hair fans out on the floor all the way to the steamer trunk she has made into a coffee table. “And what a battle! Oh— what’s your name again?“


“Louise!” Lavinia yanks her wrist again, but joyfully. “Like Lou Salomé. [Louise doesn’t know who that is.] Louise! I’ve had the most wonderful, wonderful night in the world. One of those nights. You know?”

Louise smiles politely.

“Don’t you?”

Louise hesitates.

“I believe in things again, Louise!” Lavinia closes her eyes. “God.
And glory. And love and fairy dust—God, I love this city.”

Cordelia leaves a glass of water on the steamer trunk.

But Lavinia is scrambling to the sofa. She’s beatific and dark with glitter, and light with different glitter, and Louise doesn’t know what to do or say to make Lavinia like her but she is good at watch- ing people and she knows what they need and so, like she always does, she finds an opening.

“I can fix that, you know.”

Lavinia sits up. “Fix what?”

“It’s just the hem. I can sew it back on. If you have a needle and thread.”

“A needle and thread?” Lavinia looks at Cordelia.

“My room,” says Cordelia.

“You can fix it?”

“I mean—unless you don’t want me to.”

“Don’t want you to?” Lavinia gathers up her skirts. “Lazarus, back from the dead.She piles them in her lap. “I have come to tell thee!” She flings back her arms. “Oh, I’m so—so!—sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Louise says.

“I know—I know—you must think I’m ridiculous.”

“I don’t think you’re ridiculous.”

“Are you sure?”

Louise doesn’t know what Lavinia wants her to say.

“I mean—”

Lavinia doesn’t even wait.

“You’re not judging me?”

“I’m not judging you.”

“You’re sure?”

Louise speaks very slowly. “Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.”

“It was just—it was only just a few of us. Me and Father Romylos and Gavin—Gavin’s a narcissistic sociopath. He told me so, once. One of the nicest people in the world, but technically, a narcissistic sociopath. Anyway, we decided to see if you can break into the Botanic Garden. Apparently you can! Look!”

She shows Louise a photograph. Lavinia and an Orthodox priest and a bald man in a turtleneck are collapsing in a hedgerow.

“Father Romylos is the one in the cassock,” she says.

“Are there even any flowers this time of year?” Cordelia has returned with a sewing kit. She hands it to Louise.

“It’s my favorite thing in the world, breaking into places! It makes you feel so alive——to be somewhere you’re not supposed to be. We got caught, once, had to pay an awful fine at the Central Park Zoo, but other than that! Oh—don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

Louise is sewing the hem. She hasn’t even looked up.

“Like you think I’m horrible!”

“I don’t,” says Louise.

What she is thinking is this:

Lavinia isn’t afraid of anything.

“I’m not drunk, you know,” says Lavinia. She sways her hair—her long, coarse, wonderful hair—across Louise’s shoulder. “I swear. Do you know what Baudelaire said?”

Louise puts another stitch in the hem.

“Baudelaire said that you should get drunk. On wine. On poetry.
On virtue—as you choose. But get drunk.”

“Vinny’s drunk on virtue,” says Cordelia.

Lavinia snorts. “It’s only prosecco,” she says. “Even Cordy drinks prosecco. Mother makes us.”

“I abhor alcohol.” Cordelia winks at Louise as she picks stray feathers out of the couch cushions. “It’s a vice.”

“God, don’t you just hate her?” Lavinia puts her feet on the steamer trunk. “I bet you don’t even believe in God, do you, Cordy? She’s kept it up a whole year—can you believe it? Before that she was vegan. And—oh, God, you’re brilliant!”

She has seen the hem Louise has fixed for her.

“Are you a costumier? I have a friend who’s a costumier. She makes eighteenth-century outfits every year for Carnevale in Venice.”

“I’m not a costumier.”

“But you can sew.”

Louise shrugs. “Lots of people can sew.”

“Nobody can sew. What else can you do?”

Louise is caught off guard by the question.

“Not a lot.”

“Don’t lie to me.”


“You’re special.. You have the mark of genius on your brow. I could tell—soon as I saw you. And you—you kept vigil with Cordy, didn’t you? All night long. That’s special.”

Louise isn’t special. She knows this. We know this. She just needs four hundred fifty dollars.

“Are you an actress? You’re pretty enough to be an actress.”

“I’m not an actress.” (Louise is not pretty enough to be an actress.)         “An artist?”


“Then you’re a writer!”

Louise hesitates.

She hesitates because you can’t really call yourself a writer when you haven’t written anything anyone else likes enough to publish; not when you haven’t even written anything you like enough to even ask somebody to publish; not when there are so many failed writers to laugh at in this city. But she hesitates long enough before saying “no” that Lavinia seizes.

“I knew it!” She claps her hands. “I knew it! Of course you’re a writer. You are a woman of words.” She scoops up the flash cards: assuage, assert, assent. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

“I mean—”

“What have you written?”

“Oh, you know—not a lot. Just a couple of stories and things.”

“What are they about?”

Now Louise is fully afraid. “Oh, you know. New York. Girls in New York. The usual stuff. It’s dumb.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Lavinia is staring up at her with those bright and blazing eyes. “New York is the greatest city in the world! Of course you want to write about it!”

Lavinia’s hand is so tight on her wrists and Lavinia is staring at her so intently and blinking so innocently that Louise can’t bring herself to let her down.

“You’re right,” Louise says. “I am a writer.”

“I’m never wrong!” Lavinia crows. “Cordy says I have a sense about people—I always can sense if a person is going to be interesting. It’s like telepathy, but for poetic qualities—it makes things happen.”

She stretches like a cat along the sofa. “I’m a writer, too, you know. I mean—I’m working on a novel, right now. I’m on a sabbatical, actually.”

“A sabbatical?”

“From school! That’s why I’m here.” She shrugs. “Living in squa- lor, you see. I’ve taken the year off to finish it. But my problem is I don’t have any discipline. I’m not like Cordy. She’s so smart.” (Cordelia is back at her Newman and doesn’t look up.) “Me, I just go to parties.” She yawns, long and luxuriant. “Poor Louise,” she says, so softly. “I’ve ruined your night.”

The light streams in through the window.

“It’s fine,” Louise says. “You haven’t.”

“Your beautiful Friday night. Your beautiful winter Friday—right in the middle of the holiday season, too. You probably had plans. A Christmas party, right? Or a date.”

“I didn’t have a date.”

“What did you plan, then? Before I smashed it all to pieces?” Louise shrugs.

“I dunno. I was going to go home. Maybe watch some TV.”

Truth is, Louise was planning to sleep. Sleep is the most seductive thing she can think of.

“But it’s almost New Year’s Eve!”

“I don’t really go out, much.”

“But this is New York!” Lavinia’s eyes are so wide. “And we’re in our twenties!”

It is expensive to go out. It takes so long to get home. You have

to tip for everything. It’s too cold. There are puddles in the subway stations. She can’t afford a cab.

“Come with me,” Lavinia says. “I’ll take you to a party!”


“Of course not now, silly—what am I, crazy? There’s a New Year’s Eve party happening at the MacIntyre—it’s going to be wonderful. It’s going to be their best party yet. And I owe you! All those extra hours you stayed—I owe you interest.”

“You owe her one-fifty an hour,” says Cordelia, from the armchair.  “Seven until”—she checks her wristwatch—“seven.”

Jesus fuck,” says Lavinia, so violently Louise starts. “I gave all my cash to the busker. He was playing “New York, New York” outside the Bandshell. We were very tired—we were very merry.”

She straightens up.

“Now you have to come,” she says. “If I don’t see you again, I won’t be able to pay you for tonight.”

She smiles so ecstatically.

“I owe you more than money,” she says. “I owe you the most beautiful night of your life.”

This is the first party Lavinia takes Louise to, and the best, and the one Louise will never stop trying to get back to. She goes in Lavinia’s dress from the 1920s (it is actually a reproduction from the 1980s, store-bought, but Louise doesn’t know this), which she found on the street, because that is the kind of thing that happens to people like Lavinia Williams, all the time.

Now, the MacIntyre Hotel is not a hotel. It’s kind of a warehouse and kind of a nightclub, and kind of a performance space, in Chelsea; there are a hundred or so rooms over six floors. Half of them are decorated like a haunted hotel from the Great Depression, but also there’s a forest and a whole insane asylum on the top floor where Ophelia goes mad (they also perform Hamlet, but they do it without any words), and Louise hears that sometimes actors take you into secret bedrooms or chapels and kiss you on the cheek or on the forehead or on the mouth, but tickets are a hundred dollars each (and that’s before you add the coat check, or the ten-dollar ticketing charge), and so Louise has never been herself to verify this.

Some nights, those nights, one of those nights, they do special themed costume parties in the space: all-night open-bar kiss-a-stranger-and-see parties where everybody dresses up and lurches through all the labyrinthine interconnected rooms, where every floor has its own sound system and even the bathtubs in the insane asylum are full of people making love.

Louise has never had one of those nights before.

Don’t worry. She will.


Excerpted from "Social Creature"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Tara Isabella Burton.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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.

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