The first three novels of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet—Autumn, Winter, and now Spring—are constructed not as linear stories, but as literary puzzles. To figure them out is to work their pieces together.
Autumn and Winter worked: the pieces fit. Spring’s pieces, however, feel like bits and bobs pulled out of Smith’s trunk of favorite props: Shakespeare (in Spring, Pericles), the precocious child, folklore and myth, old Britannia herself, prose poems on the seasons (green stuff pushing through the damp earth and so on), a washed-up man and wise women, works by female visual artists.
As bits and bobs go, they’re not bad. They’re Ali Smith bits and bobs. But they don’t come together to form an innovative novel, and Smith’s care in constructing them precludes the graceful chaos of an assemblage.
Part of Smith’s Seasons project entails haste; apparently, she doesn’t begin writing each book until four months before the manuscript’s due date. How does she whip them out so quickly? “I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years,” she told The Guardian, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years, it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible and that’s a massive risk to take.”
Smith might not be referring literally to one book that’s been knocking around in her head for 20 years and another book that’s “up-to-the-moment,” but her statement does point up to Spring reading almost like two different books feebly bound together.
One book: Richard, an acclaimed but out-of-work film director is asked to direct a biopic of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Marie Rilke. The screenplay revolves around the schmaltzy, and fictional, premise that the two writers became lovers while living at the same Swiss residential hotel. Richard’s beloved mentor Paddy, herself a veteran filmmaker, finds the project worthy only of scorn. While Richard is waffling about whether to take it on, Paddy’s protracted illness ends in death, plunging Richard into helpless grief.
The other book: Brit, a young but crusty female security guard at an Immigration Removal Centre in England, impulsively tags along with Florence, a 12-year-old girl she’s only just met, on a train trip to Scotland. Brit is won over by, and envies, Florence’s precocious and incisive wit and her magical ability to get people to do the right thing, including liberating women from a brothel and persuading the IRC staff to scrub the toilets.
Had the Richard book been given more room to stretch its wings it might have worked. Sturdier threads connecting it to the Brit book would have helped, too; Richard does eventually find redemption via Florence, but their encounter comes about entirely by coincidence toward the end of the novel. But the real problem with the Richard book is that its characters are a bit shopworn. Richard plays Smith’s Eternally Young but Thirsty for Enlightenment Male. Paddy and, later, Alda—and Florence, for that matter—play the Nurturing and Sage Females, there to deal Richard tough love and hopefully clue him in on the more subtle aspects of being a decent and well-rounded human being. The trope of the Nurturing and Sage Female is too pat, and what this stock character says in Spring is too prescriptive to be illuminating. Richard’s story has brilliant moments, but its somewhat patronizing, at times waggish tone eclipses Richard’s voice and diminishes the poignancy of his situation. Bound together with Brit’s book, his book is simply outdone, outshone.
Brit’s narrative tackles with passion the most profound crisis in our human world, the migration of people, a crisis that will become all the more acute as climate change destroys the viability of whole swathes of Earth. It is of a piece with Smith’s long support of Refugee Tales, an outreach organization of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which supports and visits men detained at Gatwick IRC.
As part of her work with Refugee Tales, Smith has written up her conversations and visits with immigrants to the U.K. An article by her in The Guardian tells of a young Ghanaian man whose life story, both in Ghana and in England, unfolds like a slave narrative out of the antebellum American South. Like many other immigrants in the U.K. (and in the U.S.), he lives under the constant threat of deportation and indefinite detention.
Smith’s Guardian article went a long way, especially for me as an American reader, in illuminating Spring. Though it’s foolish to long for a different book when reviewing a book, I couldn’t help but wish that Smith had included more elements like that article in her novel. Maybe she was following her own caution, expressed repeatedly in Spring, against reducing people to cozy, self-edited stories.
Florence at times reads as Smith’s mouthpiece (as does Paddy), but the author avoids casting her in the role of Magical Immigrant. She’s not there to rescue Brit from benightedness; she asserts her own agenda from the start. She has some interesting things to say, too. Entries from Florence’s journal, called the “Hot Air book,” intersperse Smith’s novel. A mashup of “Twitter language” is so true, and so ugly, it could (maybe should) make you weep. So can the offering of her immigrant face:
My being ineligible makes you all the more eligible.
No worries. Happy to help.
Also you’ll notice this face resembles the drawings on the posters that tell you to report anything you think looks suspicious.
Tell the police if you see anyone who looks like me, because my face is of urgent matter to your nation.
Not at all. No problem. Glad to be of service.
Gritty Brit, face to face with that face, suffers a few somewhat contrived epiphanies, but turns enough surprising corners to keep her voice true. Without sugar-coating the harshness of Brit’s world view, Smith affords Brit a dignity that, at times, evokes the goddess: Brit becomes Britannia. The twist of Brit being the more sympathetic character—shouldn’t it be the child Florence?—subverts the ease with which we decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.”
To survive her job and the 24-hour news cycle, Brit fiercely guards her personal gates. Carefully cultivated cynicism helps her maintain emotional distance from the “deets,” the detainees: the man who throws his own shit out of his cell, the cancer patient forced to go without meds over the weekend, the “Eritrean self-harmer,” and
Body cams. Razor wire. Deets.
“The Machine,” Brit calls herself to Florence, riffing on the British art rock band Florence + The Machine, whose 2018 album is titled High as Hope.
Brit is anything but artsy, and she’s sure no hopeful bleeding heart. “I really am the machine,” she says. She’s Guard-the-Gates Brexit Brit: no more immigrants, no more tired and poor swarming her Emerald Isle in every shade of brown. But spring, as this book and everyone knows, promises change and renewal.
Brit can continue to harden her heart into stone, or she can open up. She can turn away from that foreign face (What my face means is not your face.), or she can look right into it (My face trodden in mud. / My face bloated by sea.). She accidentally gets possession of Florence’s “Hot Air book.” She could try to return it. “Or she could just burn the book.…”
We may never know what she decides. So far, the books in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet have not continued from each other with characters and storylines in common, though several themes—migrants, ecology and the procession of the seasons, humans versus the establishment “machine”—have been building.
Whichever choice she makes, how can it be other than heartbreaking?
What’s sending the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?
In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.
1.Dear Match Book,
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.
2.Dear Match Book,
I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!
I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)
Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.
What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!
3.Dear Match Book,
Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.
4.Dear Match Book,
I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.
Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
5.Dear Match Book,
A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.
6.Dear Match Book,
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.
You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.
7.Dear Match Book,
I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.
I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.
There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.
8.Dear Match Book,
I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
9.Dear Match Book,
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?
Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.
10.Dear Match Book,
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?
N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.
11.Dear Match Book,
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….
Dear Thrown for a Loop,
Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.
Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.
It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
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Over the summer, I read Charlotte’s Web to my son, and it was like entering the house of an old friend, someone you haven’t seen in years, maybe decades, but as you sit in their kitchen and drink their coffee and look out their window to their backyard view, you remember all the time you spent at this particular table, gazing idly at the photos and sticky note reminders on the refrigerator, at the slowly ripening bananas in a cracked wooden bowl, at the pebble-filled jam jars lined up precariously on the windowsill, at the embossed linoleum floor tiles…and it’s all so comfortable and comforting that it’s like no time has passed at all.
We’ve all had friends like that. And we’ve all had books like Charlotte’s Web. When I read it aloud to my son, the sentences were so overwhelmingly familiar that I felt like I was singing along with a song I’d forgotten I knew. I read Charlotte’s Web many times as a kid, so I knew the story had made an impression, but I hadn’t realized what an influence the prose style had been, that it was a music that would stay with me for life.
Of course Charlotte’s Web is a very sad book. It often gets described as a story that teaches children about death—and I guess it does—but rereading it, I found that the real lesson is that true friendship is rare and rarely lasts a lifetime. When you’re young, and you find someone immediately delightful, you optimistically think life will be full of such encounters; you don’t understand that such people are the exception, not the rule. Your second mistake is in thinking that your mutual affinity means that the friendship will be long-lasting, when it fact, any number of life events might separate you from your friend—not only tragic events like illness and death, but marriage, children, schooling, career, and the ultimate friendship killer, a change of address. Friendships have their seasons, like anything else.
Most children’s books contain simpler lessons about friendship that focus on how to be a good friend or how to keep a friend. E.B. White takes for granted that children have natural affinities for certain people and animals, and that they form deep attachments. Rereading Charlotte’s Web, I appreciated how subtle he was in his storytelling, with his emphasis on the changing seasons on the farm, and on Fern’s transition from childhood to early adolescence. At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern can understand what animals are thinking and communicating to one another, but by the end, she has stopped visiting the farm and is more interested in the attentions of a boy at the fair.
Did my son pick up on any of this? It’s hard to say. We read it twice, and he loves any story about animals, but it seems that Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is shorter, and funnier, is the one that tickles his soul. I read that book at least eight times this year. It’s basically a heist story that ends in a dinner party. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be the novel I would spend the most time with this year, but parenthood is full of surprises.
As adult reader, the novels I loved most were Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter, the first two in her seasonal quartet. These books are set in contemporary times and written quickly to reflect our changing politics—and even our changing seasons, as climate change skews temperatures and habitats. I haven’t read anything that reflects so well how the Internet has begun to permeate our everyday thoughts, or that gets the mood of our era so well, without getting bogged down by specific events or even names. They are witty and sad and strange and playful and kind. After I read them, I decided I would immediately read everything Ali Smith ever wrote. But life got in the way of that project and now I’m waiting for her next installment, Spring, which is due in April.
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