Nutshell: A Novel

by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 2016





Nan A. Talese, (2016)


"Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home--a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse--but John's not here. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy's womb. Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world's master storytellers"--

Media reviews

London Evening Standard
...clever and skilful though it may be, as a fictional voice, this one fails completely. Misconceived, alas.
3 more
The Guardian orb, a Venetian glass paperweight, of a book; a place where – and be warned, it puts you in the quoting mood – Larkin’s “any-angled light” may “congregate endlessly”.
The Irish Times
I was moved to ask a friend halfway through whether he had ever read a book and been unable to decide whether it was utterly ridiculous or rather brilliant.
Financial Times
All the same, the high-wire act doesn’t really come off. McEwan’s usual strengths — imaginative precision, narrative placement and control of story dynamics — can make even slim works like On Chesil Beach (2007) oddly resonant. Nutshell relies instead on pure voice and quickly collapses into a mishmash of pentameter-ridden sentences and half-baked wordplay. An uncharitable reading would see its eccentric set-up as a way of refreshing some essentially banal observations. But perhaps it’s more a case of a bored master-carpenter trying his hand at embroidery.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
McEwan's latest novel (more a novella, really) is a wickedly funny riff on Hamlet. "So here I am, upside down in a woman," the narrator--a fetus--begins. (He's "bound in a nutshell," so to speak.) If you're going to enjoy this book, you have to be willing to go with this premise; if you keep asking how a fetus could have such an extensive vocabulary and sophisticated thoughts, or how he could know so much about what is going on in the world outside the womb, you'll miss the fun.

Trudy is roughly nine months pregnant. Although she separated from her husband John, a not very successful poet and publisher, she still lives in the dilapidated family home in London that he inherited., while John has moved to a flat in Shoreditch. Trudy initially told him that they needed time apart to make the marriage work--but she is deep into an affair with his younger brother Claude, a real estate developer (who has about the same level of class as the current Republican presidential candidate). Despite her advanced pregnancy, Trudy and Claude engage in regular and vigorous sex, leaving our narrator to worry that he will have his fontanel poked in or will absorb some essence of the deplorable Claude into his being. He does, however, enjoy the finer wines that his mother imbibes and has developed quite the connoisseur's palate.

The trouble begins when John announces that he knows about and accepts Trudy and Claude's relationship, confesses that he has a new lover of his own, and states that he wants to move back into the family home. The plot thickens as Trudy and Claude decide that John must go--permanently. And our narrator is positioned to eavesdrop on their plans to murder his father and give him up for adoption. If Shakespeare's Hamlet was hampered by indecision, well, this protagonist is even more incapacitated by his unborn state. Literally and emotionally attached to his mother (he experiences every hormonal and adrenal shift), he is nonetheless horrified by the plot against his father's life and by the thought of Trudy giving him up to live with the detested Claude.

In addition to the obvious parallels to Hamlet, McEwan weaves well-known lines from the play into Nutshell, although the words are sometimes put into the mouths of unexpected characters and sometimes subtly changed, a word here or there. If you're familiar with the play, the effect is delightful--reminiscent of the way in which famous lines by the Bard keep popping up in Tom Stoppard's screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." And McEwan brings it all to a climax that, in its own context, rivals the final scene of Hamlet. "The rest is chaos."
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
This was my sixth novel by Ian McEwan, and though I'd be hard-pressed to say which has been my favourite so far, it's safe to say "Nutshell" now ranks among my favourite novels of all time. This is one of those audiobooks I felt the need to take on much-hated household chores for, just so I could have a long stretch of listening time, and I listened to this audiobook in one extended, fascinating session (the house looks much better for it too).

A modern and loose retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it has all the elements of high drama and theatrics you'd expect from the Bard, but whether you're 'into' Shakespeare, or even familiar with the original play or not hardly matters. Here is a very clever thriller about two lovers plotting murder for entirely selfish motives, the whole of which is narrated by a yet unborn foetus. An unusual and not especially credible narrator you might say, but then I've read books narrated by trees, dogs and horses among other things: the greatest reward comes if you're willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.

Trudy and her husband John are currently separated, though they are expecting their first child. The expecting mother claims she needs 'time to herself', but really, she just wants to keep the coast clear in the London marriage home that John inherited from his parents so that she and her lover Claude (who just happens to be John's younger brother) can indulge in frequent passionate sex and even more frequent plotting sessions. John must be gotten rid of, so they can get their hands on the fortune the sale of the house will bring, and nothing is going to get in their way. Possibly.

Our narrator has clearly inherited a large dose of his father's creative genius—John is a published poet and publisher, and baby expresses himself beautifully and with great wit, quotes famous literary authors and happens to be a wine aficionado thanks to his mother's frequent imbibing of fine vintages. He hates and mistrusts his uncle Claude, and for good reason. Apart from Claude possibly wanting to be rid of another man's baby, he's also an insufferable bore whose conversation is entirely made up of platitudes and boring clichés; not clear is whether Claude is a complete fool, or cleverly hiding his true self.

I've seen Rory Kinnear perform in Shakespeare plays, and his Iago, the great villain in Othello, was especially chilling. Here he brings all his talent to give voice to baby and all the other protagonists, and it's a brilliant performance.


But why am I using so many words? I should just copy/paste my spontaneous reaction when I finished the book, which I shared on Facebook:

"THIS BOOK IS BLOODY BRILLIANT!!! Hurry up and get your hands on it, and I defy you to NOT take it all in in one go. Also, if you're considering trying audiobooks, then this is one to go with, brilliantly performed by the fantastic Rory Kinnear, who is among other things, a superb Shakespeare actor, which is entirely fitting for a book referencing Hamlet. But wait! It's a thriller! Narrated by a foetus! With horrible people doing horrible things (plotting murder most foul), in most amusing ways. And needless to say, this being Ian McEwan, beautifully, beautifully written. I loved this book so much, I hurried up to purchase my own audio copy right after having listened to a library loaner. Kinnear's performance is definitely a keeper (and may he narrate many more remarkable books like this one).
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LibraryThing member linda.a.
This story is told by a precociously articulate eight and a half month old foetus (well, his mother is an avid listener to Radio 4!) who has heard his mother and her lover plotting to murder his father. What can he do about it? Nothing, he fears, although he is determined to do whatever he can to try to influence events! However, what he certainly can do is to entertain the reader with his feelings of outrage about this dastardly plot, a running commentary on events as they unfold and his observations on the adults who hold his future in their hands. In addition to all this, he offers his reflections on a wide range of issues – family relationships, politics, religion, class, spiralling house prices, philosophy, to name but a few! Superficially it is a hugely funny story but it is far, far more than that in its modern take on Hamlet (allusions to the Bard’s play abound) and its wide-ranging look at contemporary society. This is Ian McEwan at his wonderfully imaginative, creative, challenging, reflective, philosophical, railing best!
The story may well require a massive suspension of disbelief but the skill of the author and the taut, imaginative narrative and the wonderful black humour made it easy for me to do just that, and to settle back to enjoy a womb’s-eye view of life – or even, of death! I hope he had fun writing it because I certainly had fun reading it!
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LibraryThing member mdoris
What a wonderful book this was! It felt clever, mischevious, almost perverse fun in the telling of a most bizarre story. What a crazy point of view to have the narrator be an unborn baby telling the story of the demise of his parents marriage. What a great and interesting writer McEwan is. He manages to inject all sorts of thoughtful ramblings into his story, telling it with fabulous vocabulary, literary references ( I wish I knew them all!!) and expressing all sorts of ideas i.e. politics, poetry, world tensions, gender musings, love/lust/hate, the list goes on and on. This felt like such a unique and creative book, more like watching a play than reading a book! So glad I read it slowly so I could get the "music" of his writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
How does Ian McEwan do it? Forty years ago he was being hailed as one of the enfants terribles of English letters, along with Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and his early stories and novels drew a lot of press attention as a consequence of their graphic content and often uncomfortable subject matter. They also drew a lot of critical attention, however, as they were beautifully written. A few decades and several novels later, McEwan is recognised as one of the foremost living novelists, but he is still experimenting and taking his work in new directions.

His latest novel takes the form of a narrative delivered by a nine-month old foetus, on the cusp of being born, whose aural window on the world has allowed him to follow the unconventional vicissitudes of what proves to be a rather complicated family life. As if this unusual context were not enough for the reader to take on board, the novel also resonates with references to Hamlet. The baby’s mother is Trudy, rather than Gertrude, and the wicked uncle answers to Claude rather than Claudius, but the parallels abound. The erudite foetus is even happy to quote James Joyce at times, to succinct comic effect, and the allusions to Shakespeare’s play are manifold and apposite, but never overpowering.

Of course, all of the above might alarm a reader who simply wants a gripping and entertaining story, but they should not be concerned. McEwan has the skill to experiment with the form of the novel without compromising the substance. The story is a thriller, and the tension builds readily from the beginning. Indeed, within a couple of pages, the narration is so engaging that the unconventional source is immediately accepted.

This is yet another in McEwan’s now lengthy line of winners, each different from the rest. Like so many of his previous novels, such as On Chesil Beach, Solar, and Sweet Tooth, my one regret was that I finished it too soon, though I am confident that I shall be re-reading it before very long.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
A man (Claude) sleeping with his brother’s wife (Trudy) and conspiring with her to murder her husband, his brother, (John), all whilst a precociously self-aware foetus looks on (well, not exactly looks, more like listens, feels, intuits) bound in the increasingly cramped space of his murderous, adulterous, yet adorable (mother love!) mother’s womb, helpless, inert (at least almost), unable but also unwilling to act. In a nutshell, it’s Hamlet.

Ian McEwan once again displays his ferocious talent for control of word and line and tension and plot. His unborn first-person narrator has learned much through BBC Radio 4 dramas and innumerable podcasts piped through earbuds to his mother’s cranium and by a sort of osmosis down to him. So he has a sense of the world even if he doesn’t know what it looks like or at least what colours look like. For him the world is much like a radio play. His imagination fills in the gaps — needs must — sometimes piercing through the veil of deceit cast by others, at other times deceiving himself. It’s a tour de force if ever there was one.

But, as ever with McEwan’s later works, there is something unsettling about the clinical nature of the prose. Perhaps it is the lack of fellow feeling with the characters. Perhaps it is the fact that the only ‘person’ McEwan draws us close to is no person at all (depending on which theory of consciousness you adhere to). Inevitably it all seems a bit too much like an exercise. Yet it makes you wonder what is the point of exercise — health, fitness, body-grooming? Can an author ever be too much into himself?

Recommended, for the sheer chutzpah of the effort, but not wholeheartedly, because I think it lacks heart.
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
This. Is. Brilliant. I really loved this small novel narrated by a fetus. It's a retelling of Hamlet, but you do not have to be familiar with the play to appreciate the story here. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Witty, Irreverent. Full of snark and humor. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Rory Kinnear, who is a perfect match for the story. Just so well done. Highly recommended. Well, what are you waiting for? This was a Katie's Dirty Dozen from last year's batch, so thank you, Katie!!… (more)
LibraryThing member hubblegal
You’ll really need to stretch your imagination wide open for this one! Trudy is living in the marital home where she once lived with her husband, John, but now she’s living with his brother, Claude. She’s 9-months pregnant with John’s baby. But the love of money must have its way and Trudy and Claude scheme a plot to commit murder. But there’s a witness to this murder plot – Trudy’s unborn baby, who narrates this whole book.

Now a baby doesn’t know much about this world, right? Well, this baby has been absorbing all of the podcasts and audio books and TV news shows that his mother has been listening to and has gained great insight into the world in which he’s about to be born. He’s really amazingly educated being such a young age! However, there’s only so much this little baby can know, not being able to see what’s going on and falling asleep during vital conversations, so he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator but he does the best he can.

This is a very witty, and certainly totally unique, retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I usually steer clear of retellings but I’m very glad I had a chance to read this one. Mr. McEwan has really pulled out all stops with his latest.

I won this book in a Doubleday giveaway.
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LibraryThing member CarmenMilligan
Brilliant premise: the story is narrated by an unborn child. He can hear what goes on around him, as well as feeling his mother's feelings, and noting her heart rhythm and adrenaline surges. He is also very aware of her alcohol consumption and none-too-happy with the high activity level of her sex life.

Writing: I found the wiring to be a touch verbose, overly descriptive. However, at less than 200 pages, the editor of this one was probably hesitant to cut too much.

Overall: It was a fast and easy read, albeit unexceptional. I recommend it if you need a quick "palate cleanser" to assist in getting over a book hangover. Otherwise, look past this one.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
A book that is narrated by an eight month old fetus. He describes what he see and hears, from his father and his love of poetry to the nefarious plans of his mother and his uncle, his father's own brother.

So why did I have such a disconnect with this book? The writing is wonderful, amazing in places. Was it that I had a hard time envisioning a fetus using this level of thought and speech? Not sure, though I did find myself occasionally shaking my head at the thought especially since I am not a fantasy lover, maybe I had a hard time going there?. I do admire the originality of the author's vision though. I think what frustrated me the most was all the thought side trips, just a little too much going astray here and there. This is definitely one intelligent fetus. Sometimes though, less is more and that is really how felt. It was just too much. Still I was glad of the experience of reading this very original story and ingesting this author's amazing prose.

ARC from Netgalley.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
The reviews will tell you this is a modern retelling of Hamlet; ignore these. They are true but knowing it adds nothing to your enjoyment of Ian McEwan at the height of his powers. For this tale of deceit, murder and mistrust McEwan chooses a unique point of view; the point of view of an unborn but sophisticated and loquacious foetus. As his mother, Trudy, and her lover, his appalling uncle Claudius, sorry Claude, plot the demise of his father John, the unnamed foetus narrates the half baked plans, the too clever by half alibis, the mutual suspicion and mistrust of the lovers, and brings into sharp relief the character of his poetic, but rather pathetic father.

Its great - an afternoon with a master at work that you won't regret spending.

On a secondary point, I am always interested when authors use the names of well known historical or fictional characters in their work. For example - what was John Mortimer thinking when he named one of the protagonists in his last Rumpole story "Honoria Glossop". Had he been reading Wodehouse and the name just stuck in his subconscious? In which case, why didn't his editors pick it up? Can they be so illiterate? Or was something broader meant? In which case, what? In this case, Ian McEwan names his potential plot victim "John Cairncross"; as many will know John Cairncross is the name of a Soviet double agent, and alleged member, with Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, of the Cambridge Five. This is something that McEwan, who has written about espionage (for example in Sweet Tooth and The Innocent) could hardly not be aware of. What then is meant by this? It doesn't add to or detract from, enjoyment of the work at hand, but it interests me
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LibraryThing member startwithgivens
You know what's all the rage and maybe getting a little overdone? Psychological thrillers. You know what's never been done? Narrating a tale of lovers grown apart, murder, new love, and betrayal from the perspective of a fetus. I don't know where this idea came from, and I don't need to. It was unique and very well written. A tale of this sort needed an experienced writer, which we got in McEwan. The best books are those that end and leave you wanting more and this was one of them.… (more)
LibraryThing member Clara53
Apart from the fact that this is a take on "Hamlet", this novel, undeniably (!), has its own matchless merit.

"Between the conception of a deed and its acting out lies a tangle of hideous contingencies".... Quite a premise: a fetus is watching and commenting (in a most sagacious way!) on the drama enfolding around his mother's life... My first instinct was to wonder: is there a "pro-life" message in that? But that was probably the paranoia from the ongoing elections here in US - which was then explained in an interview that I read, where McEwan said that the "pro-choice" vs "pro-life" thought never entered his mind in writing of this novel. He even said that only Americans might find this thread of thought in it. Ha! No wonder...

And even before I read that interview, I had to abandon that idea - simply because so much else was overpowering in this book: first of all - McEwan's striking eloquence, where exceptional humor meets the most serious of discussions ; secondly - a riveting plot; and thirdly - an ongoing commentary by the author (through the mind of the unborn child) about the world political scenery, global changes: a succinct but astute analysis of everything that's wrong with the world today... "Revenge unstitches a civilization" - how about that for summing it all up.... His thoughts about Europe are compelling: "Old Europa tosses in her dreams, she pitches between pity and fear, between helping and repelling. Emotional and kind this week, scaly-hearted and so reasonable the next, she wants to help but she doesn't want to share or lose what she has." A thoroughly captivating read. Loved it.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Ian McEwan sets himself a high bar when he makes a fetus the narrator of his new novel—NUTSHELL. The reader is asked to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that this character has prodigious ability with language, incisive knowledge of current events and easy access to human foibles. Clearly McEwan is such an erudite individual, but one wonders why he did not elect to make his narrator a person more like himself if his aim was to write a novel of ideas. He makes a half-hearted attempt to explain his narrator’s erudition by claiming that the fetus has been exposed to considerable material via his mother’s addiction to audio media. However, she is strangely characterized as somewhat of a drunken bimbo, so one wonders how her fetus gets it but she doesn’t. This unfortunate choice is distracting—often humorously so—until one finally just gives up on the façade and accepts that the narrator’s voice is, in the final analysis, McEwan.

The other narrative scheme McEwan adopts in the novel is a bit more successful, but by no means new. He retells the plot of “Hamlet.” The reader can derive considerable pleasure ferreting out all of his tongue-in-cheek references to that play in his narrative. Title: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” Character names: Trudy = Gertrude, Claude = Claudius. Plot: fratricide, revenge by a son. Setting: a rundown “castle” in St. John’s Wood. It is quite possible that the average reader will miss many of the more veiled references.

Setting aside the dubious choice of narrator and the Hamlet plotting, there is still much to like in this novel. The language is superb, the dialogue is concise and humorous, the insights are spot-on, the characters are interesting and the plotting is clever and precise. There are a few messy bits, but these are not significant enough to detract from enjoying the novel. The rationales for some of Trudy’s choices seem pretty dubious, most notably, her selection of murder over divorce and her choice of the materialistic and vapid brother. McEwan’s handling of sex and birth from the perspective of the fetus are quite amusing as are the twists that eventually trip up the plotters. However, the latter seem a little too contrived to be believable.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
Maybe the best book I've read so far this year. I loved the playful vibe of this darkly comic take on Hamlet told from the point of view of a fetus. The voice was perfectly realized, the project is original, and the novel is a uniformly compelling read even though you already know the bare outlines of the plot. It's a crime that this book didn't make the Booker longlist. (Seriously, judging panel, you went for Eileen and Hot Milk over this? Were you high?)… (more)
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Ian McEwan is a wonderful writer and this is my 3rd McEwan book. His writing is beautiful and can really be enjoyed for this alone. Couple that with a good story and you have a excellent book. The premise is a loose retelling of Hamlet done in a creative way. The narrator is the 9 month fetus of Trudy. Trudy is estranged from John, her poet husband, and is involved with his brother Claude. Without giving out too much of the story, the fetus is quite intelligent and spends many pages expounding on the state of the world and his own(it is a boy) future. Now remember this is based on Hamlet so murder etc. is there. A nice read and at 200 pages it is not a huge time investment.… (more)
LibraryThing member bibliobibuli
This is a retelling of Hamlet, probably my least favourite of Shakespeare's plays, and I much preferred this version which has Trudy and her brother-in-law, Claude, plotting and executing the perfect murder. Trudy's husband, John, a poet and publisher, must be got out the way so the lovers can sell the crumbling London townhouse for a small fortune.

Of course, it involves a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader - that a foetus can narrate a novel, can have absorbed (through listening into conversations, podcasts, TV) enough knowledge about the world to understand what is going on around him, as well as the broad sweep of twenty-first century current affairs. He's even (via his placenta) a wine buff! McEwan brings it off incredibly well and the writing is simply gorgeous, every sentence so well turned that you want to reread whole passages for the pleasure. It's fun to spot the lines form Shakespeare, subverted and woven into the tapestry.

There's plenty of humour too - I especially loved Claude who speaks only in cliched utterances.
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LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
I thoroughly enjoyed this classic story of deception and murder. What was unique, extremely clever, and humorous, was the perspective of the narrator, which I will not elaborate on to avoid a spoiler. I binge listened to this one and liked it on several levels.
LibraryThing member Laura400
Clever idea from an excellent, intelligent writer, but the novel wasn't really satisfying to me. The usual McEwan style. The usual types of McEwan characters. What was missing? Warmth?
LibraryThing member Lotjes
Same perspective (unborn child) as in Charles Lewinsky's Andersen.
I liked the latter a lot more.
LibraryThing member tangledthread
Hamlet reimagined. It just didn't do it for me.
LibraryThing member EBT1002
"I've heard it argued that long ago pain begat consciousness. To avoid serious damage a simple creature needs to evolve the whips and goads of a subjective loop, of a felt experience. Not just a red warning light in the head -- who's there to see it? -- but a sting, an ache, a throb that *hurts.* Adversity forced awareness on us, and it works, it bites us when we go too near the fire, when we love too hard. Those felt sensations are the beginning of the invention of the self. And if that works, why not feel disgust for shit, fearing the cliff edge and strangers, remembering insults and favours, liking sex and food? God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually."

Our unnamed narrator is a miraculously articulate and knowledgeable fetus, very near term, who hears his mother and her boyfriend plotting the murder of the fetus' father who is also his mother's husband, her boyfriend's brother. It's a short novel and it ends just in time to avoid going too far. Lyrical, humorous, ironic, delightful. Perfect.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
In my opinion, McEwan has written one of the most imaginative narratives I've read in quite some time. It is amazing how a story can be both humorous and heartbreaking and have it be told from the viewpoint of a precocious wine snob fetus. From his little and unseen world he tries desperately to save his outside, future world. The prose is sometimes absolute poetry and at a short 200ish pages is well worth your time or listen to the audio as I did and you will be entranced.… (more)
LibraryThing member siri51
Unborn Hamlet in modern day London as narrator; tragic, comic, quite a brilliant captivating tale.
LibraryThing member kidzdoc
This short novel is a modern retelling of Hamlet, narrated by an unnamed late third trimester fetus who is the witness to a murder plot concocted by his mother Trudy and her lover Claude to murder his father John, who happens to be Claude's brother. Trudy is separated from John, a failed poet and publisher riddled with debt and afflicted with psoriasis, and she lives in the crumbling, filthy North London house that her husband inherited, which Claude, a property developer of little charm and fewer morals, claims is worth millions of pounds. Once the fetus learns that he will likely be put up for adoption after his birth if the couple's plan succeeds he vows to do whatever he can to foil their nefarious scheme.

Nutshell is an entertaining work and a quick read, although I found the fetus's witty comments to be a bit too clever at times, which kept me from giving it 4 or more stars.
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