Shadow Tag

by Louise Erdrich

Hardcover, 2007

Call number




HarperCollinsPublishers Inc (2007), Edition: First Edition, 1st Printing


Chronciles the emotional war between Irene America, a beautiful, introspective woman of Native American ancestry, struggling to finish her dissertation while raising three children, and her husband Gil, a painter whose reputation is built on a series of now iconic portraits of Irene.

Media reviews

in places, “Shadow Tag” seems more like notes for a novel than fully realized fiction. Elsewhere, though, Erdrich’s unbridled urgency yields startlingly original phrasing (“the christbirthing pinecone air”) as well as flashes of blinding lucidity.
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I left the novel with mixed feelings. Despite its psychological acuity, and the tenderness the author has for the kids, I mostly felt trapped in a stifling space with a rather unlikable couple. I hope that in her next novel, Erdrich opens some windows.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Pennydart
“Shadow Tag” is an account of a failing marriage between two very flawed people. Gil is an artist who has been painting pictures of his wife Irene for years, many of them verging on pornographic. He has a fierce temper, and can be astonishingly cold and demanding with the very people he loves
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most. Irene is a failed academic who is never quite able to complete her dissertation, or who herself display a very nasty streak. At moments they love each other deeply and touchingly, but much more often they hate one another and behave in increasingly destructive ways, Irene in particular struggling to extricate herself from the marriage. When she discovers that Gil has been reading her journal, she moves it to a safe deposit box, writing in it only from the small room in the vault of the bank, while creating a sham journal in which she writes false accounts intended to manipulate Gil.

While this is a novel about a marriage, it is also fundamentally a novel about the shattering impact that the failure of that marriage on the couple’s children. Much of what we learn about Irene and Gil we learn through their children’s eyes. Irene’s alcoholism, for instance, is revealed through this description of six-year-old Stoney: “He drew his mother almost every day, in beautiful dresses. He gave his mother stripes and polka dost and if he made a flowery dress he put a matching flower in her hair. In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stoney drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it.” When Irene asks him what that is, he tells her: “The wineglass.” The depth to which this is a story about “the children” does not become completely clear until the very last pages of the book, when facts about its narration are revealed, leading to a dramatic change in our understanding of the story.

Lousie Erdrich, of course, was married to Michael Dorris. Both successful writers, many aspects of their marriage were quite public, including allegations that he sexually abused one of their daughters. Dorris committed suicide about a year after he and Erdrich separated. Clearly there are echoes of Erdrich’s experiences throughout this book. Like all of her novels, this one is haunting and beautifully written.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Gil and Irene are married with three children: thirteen year old Florian (a math genius who learns from his mother to calm his anger with alcohol and drugs), eleven year old Riel (who plots elaborate survival plans to save her family in the event of disaster), and five year old Stoney (who clutches
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his stuffed animals in order to feel safe in a home which is becoming increasingly unpredictable). Gil is a successful artist who paints only portraits of Irene – portraits which are often humiliating and verge on the pornographic. Irene longs to leave her marriage to a man who is emotionally abusive to her and has begun to strike out at his children. But, their shared history, complicated by a love that requires Irene to submit and Gil to control, holds Irene in the marriage. When she discovers that Gil has been reading her diary, she decides to use this as a means to manipulate him, a way to force him to leave her.

Shadow Tag is a dark, disturbing, and psychologically thrilling novel about the unraveling of a marriage and the consequences for children living in a dysfunctional family. Gil is a highly intellectual man who is obsessively attached to his wife. He believes she is unfaithful to him, and is even jealous of Irene’s love for his children.

He was taciturn, depressed, sarcastic, charming. He’d grin when Irene though he was going to yell, turn fond on a dime. And he hadn’t always been so angry. The truth was, he needed Irene’s full attention. He’d had it before the children came. They took it away and he was jealous from the beginning. – from Shadow Tag, page 56 -

Irene lacks the strength to walk away from Gil – his control over her is nearly complete – so she becomes pathologically passive-aggressive, leaving tantalizing untruths in the diary she knows that Gil is reading. Their relationship becomes a game – like the title of the book, they take turns baiting each other, and all I could think about was the childhood game of tag, where one runs up and slaps another, turns and sprints away yelling “Tag, you’re it!”

Gil had a wall. Irene had a wall. Between the two walls there was a neutral, untouched area, a wilderness of all they did not know and could not imagine about the other person. - from Shadow Tag, page 151 -

Louise Erdrich’s prose is mesmerizing. She builds the tension between Gil and Irene beautifully. There can be no happy end, and yet the reader continues to read, anxious to see what will happen next, afraid to look away even though tragedy is just around the corner. Woven through the novel are references to Native American lore. Riel, the only daughter in the family, clings to her heritage for the power it represents. Irene examines and seeks understanding in the stories of her tribe and even names her daughter after an Indian poet.

A sure sign of a great book is the number of stickies that cling to its pages when I am finished reading. Shadow Tag had dozens of them. Erdrich’s writing has a poetic, yet stark quality to it. Her characters come alive on the page. She deftly controls the plot, teasing out tantalizing morsels of information that keep the reader turning the pages. Shadow Tag is not an enjoyable read – it made my mouth grow dry and made my heart ache. There is an element of inevitability which informs the story. How can things possibly be fixed between these two characters? How can the children ultimately be saved from the wreck of their family?

As I turned the final page, I found myself emotionally spent. But, even though I cannot say I enjoyed the novel, I was blown away by it. Louise Erdrich is the consummate story teller. Once the reader is in her capable hands, there is nothing to do but allow her to carry them to the end.

Readers who love literary fiction, psychological thrillers, and beautifully told stories with magnificent language, will want to read this book.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member bragan
A portrait of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between Irene, an intellectually inclined Native American woman and her volatile, often abusive artist husband, with their three gifted children caught in the middle.

I didn't think at first that I was going to like this book, as I had difficulty
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relating to the characters' marital problems and found their little cruelties towards each other off-putting. But the writing was so good -- full of depth, subtlety and insight, written in a sparse, effective style -- that I quickly found myself swept up and drawn into these peoples' lives, almost against my will. I simply couldn't stop turning pages until I'd finished.
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
I was blown away by this one. Such a powerful, disturbing story, written in a sharp, poignant manner that took my breath away. Not a story that I can easily recommend as it touches on some issues that some readers may not be comfortable reading, but that is exactly what made this such an amazing
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read for me. Erdrich gets under the skin of her characters and brings to the surface their troubling personality and control issues, depicting a manipulative relationship as the damaging and destructive force it can be for all caught within its vortex. I seem to appreciate disturbing, shattering reads like this one. Not sure what that says about me but I think it says a lot about Erdrich's ability as a writer to unflinchingly paint a picture, draw me in as a reader and keep my attention while the subject matter continues to disturb and then throw me over the precipice like she did with that ending. A brilliant portrayal, but as I mentioned, not a book that is easy to recommend to others.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Gil, a painter, and Irene, a stalled graduate student, have a terrible marriage. Irene is an alcoholic, and Gil is close behind. Their three children display those sad, precocious coping mechanisms that many children develop when their dads are scary and their moms are weak. When Irene realizes
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that Gil has been reading her diary, she punishes him by writing false entries designed to torment him. It works.

This book was dark and unpleasant, even for me, yet I couldn't stop reading. I actively hated both of the adults, perhaps more than the author meant me to. Besides being selfish and abusive, I found them intellectually pretentious and snobbish My heart went out to the children, who were beautifully portrayed: Florian, the genius, Riel, the supposed protector of her family, and Stoney, too young to have constructed his defense mechanisms yet. The poor dears deserve so much better than the parents they are stuck with.

In case it isn't apparent by the tone of my review, I really liked this book.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
We are introduced to this troubled, painful marriage with Irene developing the strategy of keeping two diaries when she learns that her husband has been reading her diary at home. Gil, her husband, is a renowned painter who has made his career painting nudes of Irene.

Obsession, lack of personal
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boundaries, alcoholism, and abuse are characteristic of the painful entanglement that they share. Included in this tangle are three children who are more keenly aware of what is going on between the parents than the parents themselves.

The writing is terse, tense, and spare.. The title is a metaphor for a Native American belief in the afterlife or, land of the dead, as a sort of shadow world. The metaphor is suggested through out the story.

The story line reminds me of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Irene hasn't felt the marriage was working since before the birth of their youngest son, Gil is hoping that if he ignores things and gives everybody really good presents and makes nice dinners then everything will revert to normal. Irene has been steadily drinking instead of making concrete plans
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to leave and Gil wants things to improve, but not enough to control his hair-trigger temper that has him lashing out, both verbally and physically, at any family member who displeases him. All three children are unhappy.

It's at this point that Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary and she determines to use that to manipulate him into agreeing to a divorce. She also begins a second, secret diary, which she keeps in a safety deposit box at a bank.

This is a hard book to read. Unlike the scenarios set out in popular fiction, no one gets to be the good guy. And the three children are complex, interesting people. In the end, the book does feel fragmented, as though the author, in the end, couldn't continue to deal with the subject matter and so let the book go early.
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LibraryThing member karieh
I think it is very fitting that this novel is set primarily in the winter. There is such a sense of constricted heat surrounded by icy chill – the characters pent up emotions seem to exactly mirror a type of cabin fever. Being too long constrained inside in a too familiar environment – away
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from the rest of the world.

Gil and Irene are husband and wife…two people in a marriage that seems both addicting and toxic to both. Irene often acknowledges wanting out, yet many of her actions speak differently. Gil professes his undying love for Irene and their children, yet his actions sometimes make it impossible that they will stay with him.

“A soul could be captured through a shadow. It was in the Ojibwe language. Waabaamoojicchaagwaan – the word for mirror can also refer to shadow and to the soul: your soul is visible and can be seen. Gil had placed his foot on Irene’s shadow when he painted her. And though she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel.”

Gil and Irene hurt each other in large and small ways, yet the primary victims of this destructive dance are their children. All three develop coping mechanisms, and all three seem braced for an inevitable disaster. Florian, Riel and Stoney are the most sympathetic characters in the book, forced to witness the destruction of their family and forced to grow up too soon.

The beginning of the end of this marriage is when Gil starts to read Irene’s diary…and she finds out. Their passionate and bitter dance intensifies.

“He’d become aware that the worse things were between them, the better his work came out. It did not yet occur to him to wonder whether his suspicions about Irene were also a method of pushing her away from him, so that he could feel her absence, and in turn feel an aching desire out of which we could make his art.”

The air in the house is so charged that even the dogs are aware of it. “In her new efforts at observation, Riel noticed many things. For instance, she had noticed that the dogs were behaving as if their humans were going on a trip. The dogs hated it whenever the suitcases came out. But there were no suitcases. They only acted as if there were suitcases. They were nervously watchful these days. There was something in the air that made them uneasy.”

All throughout this book, there is a sense of grasping…characters trying to hold on to emotions, ideas of how things used to be. Clutching at feelings, yet them slipping away out of a sweaty grasp.

Irene and Gil are locked into a life together, and their children are trapped with them. It becomes clear that the situation cannot last, yet as the tension mounts in the book, it is unclear whether survival will come to the ones who remain in the family or those who break free and rejoin the world outside.
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LibraryThing member fig2
When Irene discovers that her husband is reading her diary, she starts using it to manipulate him. This is a searing portrait of a troubled marriage unraveling at the seams. Louise Erdrich gives us the best thing she has ever written. It is astonishing.
LibraryThing member Beezie
One of the best Domestic Hell stories I've ever read. It's a very good book. Hideous, infuriating, endearing and intelligent; all at once.

It kind of beats you over the head with symbolic imagery and metaphors of the native experience...but that seems likely to be intentional. Possibly, she had to
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be obvious in order to pierce the narcissistic haze surrounding the husband and wife.

Either that, or Erdrich isn't writing with her dominant hand. Attempting to appear less polished, maybe? Painters do that sometimes, to achieve primitive effects. I think the ending kind of supports that idea, but I'd have to spoil it to explain...
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LibraryThing member Pam1960ca
Absolutely detest the main characters in this book. Very unlikeable people. Didn't really enjoy this book at all and I had read great reviews on it. Just not my type of book I guess.
LibraryThing member SFCC
Durrow, Heidi W. his perfect jewel of a novel mirrors the real life of the author, Heidi Durrow, who grew up biracial in the early 80's in Portland, Oregon.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
As always, I enjoyed Louise Erdrich's writing. This novel deals very well with the private and public sides of relationships, with the ties that bind us to even the worst of relationships. The story is told using the vehicle of dual journals kept by a woman who feels trapped in an abusive
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relationship and who knows her spouse reads her journals, so she keeps two. Themes of the book include: Native American identity issues, marriage, abusive relationships, shame, love. I particularly liked her description of denial as "obtuse innocence" and "sacred craziness". Dark, good read.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
I loved Erdrich's very first book, and haven't been able to read any of the others until this one - her writing seemed to deteriorate. This was better, and the plot, involving the two diaries the wife begins to keep when she discovers her husband has been reading her original diary, was interesting
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at the beginning. But I think she could have done more with it, instead of jumping ahead at the end to what was basically a boring estrangment.
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LibraryThing member marient
When Irene America discovers that her husband, GIl, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her red diary-hidden where Gil will find it-into a manipulative
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As her home increasingly becomes a place of violence and secrets, and she drifts into alcoholism, Irene moves to end her marriage.
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
Just as her character, Gil, finds he is always "classified as an American Indian artist, or a Native American artist, or a tribal artist, I'm sure Erdrich has always been neatly categorized as an Indian writer. This book feels like a further exploration, begun in [The Painted Drum], of stretching
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those boundaries. There is even less reference to native history in Shadow Tag than in The Painted Drum Her main characters were both raised away from the reservation with little cultural influence.
This novel about modern relationships (marriage on the rocks, children trying to avoid the fallout) is well-written, as usual for Erdrich. However I have read too many novels lately about women using alcohol to escape from their problems. For someone who sees nothing wrong with taking a drink now and then, this book would be worth checking into.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I've been putting off reviewing this book because it is hard to know what to make of it. On the plus side it kept me reading. On the negative, the deeply-flawed characters are rather frustrating in their lack of insight into their dysfunctional behavior.

It's not quite a roman a clef, but I don't
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doubt that there are true statements about Louise Erdrich's and Michael Dorris's marriage in it (especially the dialog Irene and Gil have about their relationship as "kitsch". How many people have occasion to refer to their marriage in that way?).

The characters' names are interesting, and I haven't seen anyone else comment on them. Are we supposed to believe that anyone would name a boy Florian America and saddle their daughter with the name Riel(presumably pronounced "Real")America? Real America? Really?

Also the best-friend/sister character is Louise, just like the author. I don't know what to make of that.
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LibraryThing member KristiB41
The book's title did not really coincide with the main theme of the book. This story was quite different and I couldn't believe that someone would go to such lengths to irritate someone else. I really loved "The Painted Drum" by this author but this book left me hoping her other books are better.
LibraryThing member karenlisa
Shadow Tag By Louise Erdrich Irene and Gil are married and have three beautiful intelligent children. Gil is a famous renowned painter and Irene is his wife, his model and his muse and always has been. Irene keeps two diaries, one is her truth, it is locked away in a bank vault and the second is
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her manipulative imagination because she knows Gil is secretly reading her diary and she intends to punish him. They are both descendants of American Indian tribes and the author works very hard, not always successfully, to bring this thread of Native American history and culture into the story. The novel depicts a violent relationship, both emotionally and physically, and its effects on their children. There is not a single character that is likable and it is hard to become emotionally attached to the any of them. The writing is excellent but at times the story is hard to follow and there is just something missing.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
This novel provides a chilling look into the marriage of Gil and Irene, two damaged people who are bound inexorably together through their secrets and manipulations of each other. The children of this dysfunctional marriage are, as children always are, the ultimate victims of their complicated,
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tortured relationship. Irene and Gil are separately despicable, and together are more so as they feed each other's insecurities and neuroses. The ending is a masterful, albeit haunting, touch by Erdrich.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
This is a close and detailed portrait of a family, parents and three children, that is in the process of breaking up. The mother, Irene, has not been happy in her marriage since before her youngest, who is now six, was born. She has reached her tipping point and is ready to end things, but she is
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having difficulty doing it. She needs to and tries to convince her husband that it is time to break up, but he is trying desperately to hold on, continually professing his love for his wife and planning futile tactics to hold things together. When she realizes that he has been reading her diary, she starts to write entries designed to lead him to the decision to let her go. We read those entries and also a separate diary the is her “real diary,” which she keeps in her safe deposit box. But, the bulk of the book is a narrative written by an unidentified third party.

I would not recommend this book for anyone who is now going through or has experienced a difficult breakup. I found myself reliving aspects of my own pain while reading this description of the pain of others, which feels so real and deep.

There is a bit of comic relief; it is not all sad and heavy. There are a couple of amusing scenes with the couple and their therapist. Also, the middle child and only daughter gets some focus, and she is rediscovering her Native American roots and planning for survival in case of a disaster, such as an attack by terrorists or vampires, etc. And, despite their many differences the couple still finds it possible to use the forces that do drive them together to find intermittent happiness.
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LibraryThing member mckait
I have to admit to being a fan of Louise Erdrich. I have read quite a few of her books, beginning with Tracks,
and including A Plague of Doves and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel, which was one of the best books I read in 2009.

This is the story of a small family, with
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big issues. They have both tribal and family issues to contend with. The story pulls no punches, as is typical of Erdrich. She lays it all out for you to see, feel touch and sometimes even taste, so strong is her imagery.

You hear mostly the voice of Irene throughout the book. Her husband Gil has intruded into her life by reading her journals. He has also, by use of his art, drained her to the very core. What is left of Irene has become bitter and empty and hurt. She tries filling the spot where her soul used to be with alcohol. The oft tried and failed way to endure. Gil himself is mean spirited and just plain mean. Irene has taken to punishing him by weaving lies into her journal. She keeps a more honest one for herself hidden, as she does her own heart.

Living with these two parents is not easy. The family dogs are well aware of the negativity and do their best
to shield the children especially from the anger and grief, and sometimes violence.

Anyone who has ever read Erdrich knows that her books are not flowers and butterfies, but they are good, honest and compelling stories of realistic people who are just doing the best that they can. Such a book is Shadow Tag.

The ending will stun you. You will go back and read it again, to be certain.

I very highly recommend this book and the others by Erdrich that I have mentioned. You will never be sorry, or regret time spent with one of these fine books.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
My first Louise Erdrich novel but definitely not my last. I had started another book but had to return it so I was happy to get my hands on this. I agree with many of the other reviewers. This is a painful book to read. For all of us in relationships, there is much to learn from this book. This
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book is why I love fiction. It give me another view(besides my own) on how human beings act. It allows me to benchmark my life. I did not like the characters but that is the true test of a good novel. Can I like a book with characters that I don't respect or like. Yes and this was one of those books. I am glad that I am not those people
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This is certainly one of the quickest reads I had lately, but for two days I was literally page turning through this train wreck of a marriage. Irene America, ( great name) is not happy with her marriage and when she discovers that her husband, Gil, is sneaking into her diary, she decides to use it
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against him to plant the seeds that will get him to leave her. She is no angel, that’s for sure, but the husband’s violent tendencies have the three children flinching and huddling together in bed at night. Louise has had an affair but interestingly she feels that history requires two things- for the thing to happen and for the thing to be talked about. If it is never mentioned, then it is not history. She is also an alcoholic. Drinking is actually something she and her husband share. Also of particular interest is that her husband is an artist who is quite famous and has supported the family by painting all kinds of strange and often erotic pictures of his wife. She is his only model and the world has seen her naked in countless poses. In shadow tag a person steps on another’s shadow and that is integral here. By painting her he has stepped on her shadow, by deceiving him in her diary she is returning the favor.
Though there are hints of the American Indian background of the characters ( both are mixed breed) there is certainly less than most of Erdrich’s novels. It is also interesting to speculate how this quite gifted author may have used this novel as a diary of her own, alluding to some personal similarities to her marriage to Michael Dorris. I have admired many of Erdrich’s works: The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, the Bingo Palace, Tracks, but it was interesting to see this variation in her usual style. I enjoyed this change.
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LibraryThing member TiffanyHickox
The story was well written and it pulls you in to the lives of the characters, which are pretty well developed. The ending was a bit tragic, but it made the story better even though it was a little depressing.


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