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Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Grief and Loss Affect Everyone Differently

Grief impacts individually uniquely. A sudden death in an accident or suicide affects the survivors differently than a slow death from cancer or dementia. A violent death is different than a natural peaceful one.  The type of loss often affects how survivors will respond. So do the beliefs of the dying person and their family about an afterlife. Grief has many faces, depending on the person grieving. Only one character in these three novels seems to value religion.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Luke, the protagonist of When I’m Gone, a widower with young children, has watched his wife die of cancer.  In The High Cost of Flowers, an already dysfunctional family with adult children deals with a mother who has dementia.  In The Storied Life of A.J Fikry, a widowed bookseller discovers a toddler a mother has left in his store’s stacks with a note, and it changes his life.

When I’m Gone, by Emily Bleeker

Luke, arrives home from his wife Natalie’s funeral with his children — Will, 14, May, 9, and Clayton, 3. Will’s eyes are red and wet. May says she’s hungry. Clayton is still sleeping in the car seat.  Natalie’s mother, Grandma Terry, has left food for the family before making her escape. She has never liked Luke and had never wanted Natalie to marry him because Luke’s father was an alcoholic wife-beater.

Natalie had planned the perfect funeral for herself and took care of all the details before she died. She knew that Luke would have trouble coping with the house and children after her death so she planned that, too.  When Luke walks into the house he finds the first of many almost daily letters from Natalie on the floor in front of the mail slot. They were definitely from Natalie, but who was delivering them?

The continuing letters help Luke cope with his life as a widower. Natalie’s best friend Annie helps out a lot, but she has her own secret.

Natalie knew Luke would need more help with the children than Annie could provide, so in one of her letters, she urged him to hire 21-year-old Jessie to watch the children after school. Why was it so important to her that Luke hire Jessie?

Luke also keeps running into a Dr. Neal in Natalie’s letters and as a contact on her phone. He doesn’t like the jealous feelings and suspicions that rise up in him. Who is this Dr. Neal? Why was he so important to Natalie?

Follow Luke and Annie’s grief journey as they get to know each other better. Find out Annie’s secret and who has been putting Natalie’s letters through the mail slot. Discover the secrets only Dr. Neal can reveal. Don’t miss When I’m Gone.

The High Cost of Flowers by Cynthia Kraack

Dementia is hard enough to for a family to deal with when there is an abundance of love between family members. When siblings alienate each other and fight constantly, it’s almost impossible to share the care and decision making.

 

Family matriarch Katherine Kemper and her neighborhood friend Janie had done everything together before Katherine had a stroke. The stroke left Katherine with dementia. Her husband Art tries to care for her at home with some help from Janie and his children Todd and Carrie.

As the book opens, Art reflects on the old pre-stroke Katherine he loved and wishes she were back. His old life of puttering in the garden and seeing friends is gone. He feels the pain and frustration of all who care for loved ones with dementia.

Art’s Life as Katherine’s Caregiver

Janie tries to help out, but the demented Katherine berates her and accuses her of stealing her diamond and trying to poison her with the food she often brings over.  In the first chapter, Janie has brought over some chili, and Katherine refuses to eat it. She often has tantrums now.

As Art prepares to heat the chili, Katherine says: ‘That’s not one of our containers. Did that woman make that food? Are you going to eat out of it or is it poisoned just for me?’ Katherine is itching for a fight Art doesn’t want.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
Janie tries to help by bringing chili for Art and Katherine

 

She crashes a soup bowl on the end of the granite counter sending shards flying everywhere. Then she stomps on the bowls, cuts her feet, and attacks Art with a piece of the glass. She then smashes another dish and picks up pieces of it to throw in Art’s face.  One piece connects with Art’s forehead. When he demands to know what she’s doing, she replies:

I’m trying to make you ugly so women won’t  want you. So you won’t put me away. I want you to bleed. like me.

Then she cries and reaches out for him. He gets a sharp pain in his chest and calls 911.

Rachel

Meanwhile, their estranged older daughter Rachel is running along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. She fights loneliness after her separation from her husband David since he had an affair. She is a trained therapist who has written family self-help books.

Later that evening she sits pondering the changes in her life as she eats dinner and works at home.  Her parents’ physician, Dr. Wagner calls to inform her that both her parents are in the hospital and her siblings are both out of town. He asks Rachel to come to Minnesota and help out. He wants to place Katherine in a care facility for patients with dementia. Katherine, as well as Rachel’s siblings, have always opposed this, so Rachel anticipates a family fight.

A Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family

Katherine has always been domineering and abusive. Both her husband and children have been her victims. Rachel’s siblings Todd and Carrie are already alcoholics when we meet them in the book. Catherine has told Rachel not to call her “Mom” and doesn’t want her around. At family functions, Catherine has tantrums mixed with episodes of dementia.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
Todd and Carrie are already alcoholics

It’s evident to the reader that Catherine is too sick for  Art to be able to continue to care for her at home. Art, Todd, and Carrie try to pretend this isn’t true. After Catherine attacks Art with the broken glass, he realizes she needs more care than he can give and Art and Rachel move her to a care facility. Rachel supports him, but her siblings still resist.

They blame Rachel for moving to Chicago where she’s not close enough to help. She has really moved to keep herself and her son Dylan away from the Kemper family dysfunction. Except for Rachel, all of the adult Kempers drink too much. That’s how they deal with the family problems.

Families in Crisis, Hurting People

Author Cynthia Kraack offers us a window into the unhappy lives of the characters. We see their family dysfunction clearly whenever the family or siblings gather. It’s one thing to know about dementia and abuse intellectually. It’s another to see it happening as family members push each other’s buttons and use words to manipulate and hurt each other. Sibling rivalry hangs over all family interactions.

We watch as Katherine goes in and out of the real world within seconds. One minute she’s lucid and the next she’s wondering who that stranger in her room is or seeing long-dead family members around the dinner table. She may become suddenly violent, then wonder how her victim got hurt, and then cry like a baby.  An observer might see all these behaviors within an hour. We see Katherine’s pain and confusion and her family’s pain as they watch.

Learn to recognize early signs of dementia in the video below.

My Personal Response to the Book

This book grabbed my attention from the first pages. The characters were so well developed you could almost predict what they would say or do by the middle of the book. The plot, though, had some twists I didn’t expect. I won’t give any spoilers.

The focal point of the book was Katherine and her dominance in the family. Everyone had to focus on her when in her presence. She was the elephant in the room when she wasn’t present. Ironically, at the end of the book, when Katherine finally dies, what’s left of the family is celebrating July 4 together, and no one was answering their phones when the nursing home called to notify them of her death. They had started a new tradition of turning them off when together.

I would recommend this book to those who have grown up in dysfunctional families or who give or have given care to those with dementia. Those who have alcoholics in their families or are grieving lost loved ones will probably identify with characters in this book, too. The book may also help those who need to make a decision about getting institutional care for a loved one unable to continue living at home.

Of all the main characters, the only ones I might have enjoyed spending time with were Rachel and Art. The others would tend to suck away my energy.

The book is well-written except for a couple of typos in the eBook that weren’t caught by an editor.  The plot moves swiftly and many of the characters become more functional as the book progresses. Those who depend on alcohol and or drugs find that they aren’t a lasting cure for pain. Those who are willing to forgive hurts and face their problems honestly discover there is hope.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Get The High Cost of Flowers at Amazon for a revealing peek into the lives of a dysfunctional family caring for their mother who is no longer herself.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel

No bookseller or bibliophile should miss this book by Gabrielle Zevin. Every chapter is prefaced with A. J. Fikry’s thoughts on specific stories which turn out to be significant in the plot. And who is A .J. Fikry?

 

A. J. Fikry is a grieving bookseller who lost his wife less than two years prior. She died in an accident driving an author home from a signing. He’s become a grumpy 39-year-old man who tries to drown his grief in drink, and he’s lost interest in his life and his bookstore Island Books on Alice Island. He has a very rare copy of Poe’s Tamerlane which he plans to sell someday to finance his retirement. Meanwhile, he keeps it in a locked glass case in the store below the apartment where he now lives alone. He has few real friends but very specific book tastes.

A Bad Start for a Relationship

Amelia Loman, a new sales rep with Knightley Press in the Boston area, is about to call on Fikry for the first time. She is the replacement for former rep, Harvey Rhodes. Although she has made an appointment to see Fikry, he doesn’t seem to be aware of it. She gets off to a bad start on the way to his office when her sleeve catches on a stack of books and knocks down about a hundred of them.  Fikry hears the commotion, approaches her, and asks, ‘Who the hell are you?’ He tells her to leave.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

A.J. says they have no meeting. He’d never gotten word of Harvey’s death. He reluctantly does let her in so she can pitch Knightley’s winter list. She doesn’t expect to get an order. She begins to tell him about her favorite book, Late Bloomer, but he says it’s not for him. He said Harvey knew what he liked and Amelia challenges him to share his likes and dislikes with her. He does.

Grief Leads to the Loss of Tamerlane

Later that night A.J. regrets treating Amelia so badly. He goes up to his apartment and reminisces about past book discussions with Harvey. He puts a frozen dinner in the microwave to heat, as usual, and while waiting he goes to the basement to flatten book boxes.

By the time he gets upstairs again his dinner is ruined. He throws it against the wall as he realizes that although Harvey meant a lot to him, he probably meant nothing to Harvey. On further reflection, he realizes that one problem of living alone is that no one even cares if you throw your dinner against the wall.

He pours a glass of wine, puts a cloth on the table, and retrieves Tamerlane from its climate-controlled case. Then he places it across the table from his chair and leans it against the chair where his wife Nic used to sit. Then he proposes a toast to it:

‘Cheers, you piece of crap,’ he says to the slim volume.

Then he gets drunk and passes out at the table. He “hears” his wife telling him to go to bed. One reason he drinks is to get to this state where he can talk to Nic again. `

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

When he wakes the next morning he finds a clean kitchen, a wine bottle in the trash, and no Tamerlane. The bookcase is still open. He hadn’t insured the book because he had acquired it a couple of months after Nic had died. In his grief, he forgot to insure it.

He runs to the police station and reports the theft to recently divorced Chief Lambiase. He admits everyone he knows is aware that he had the book. The police find no prints and the investigation goes nowhere. A.J. knows he’ll never see the book again.

Maya

After news of the theft gets out,  Island Bookstore’s business picks up. After a day of rather difficult customers, A.J. closes the store and goes running. He doesn’t bother to lock the door. He doesn’t have anything worth locking up anymore.

J.J.’s review of Bret Harte’s Story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” introduces this chapter.  In his review, he calls it an “Overly sentimental tale of a mining camp that adopts an ‘Ingin baby’ whom they dub Luck.” He admits not liking it much in college, but that it had brought him to tears as an adult.

When A.J. returns from his run, he hears cries coming from the children’s section. As he investigates the source, he sees a toddler holding the store’s only copy of Where the Wild Things Are.  As A. J. asks her where her mother is, she cries and holds out her arms to him. Of course, he picks her up. Then he sees the Elmo doll on the floor with a note attached.  The child is two-year-old Maya and the mother wants her to be raised in the bookstore.

A.J. reports the abandoned child to Chief Lambiase. Lambiase and A. J. decide that A.J. will keep the child until Monday when social services will arrive. The next day, the mother’s body washes to shore.

Are you wondering

  • What will happen to Maya?
  • Who is Maya’s father?
  • What happened to Tamerlane?

It’s fairly easy to guess the answers to the first two questions. The clues are there. As to the last, I don’t want to be a spoiler.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

My Critique

I will admit I loved the book, but I didn’t love all the characters.   The author introduces Maya’s father early in the book. I didn’t like him then and didn’t change my opinion. He appeared in the book long before A.J. found Maya.

Grief and loss appear in many forms: bereavement, infidelity, suicide, terminal illness, and material loss. Yet there is also love. We watch as love for Maya transforms A. J. Fikry as surely as “Luck” transformed a mining camp’s residents.

Bibliophiles, writers,  and booksellers will relate to A. J.’s constant references to and opinions of well-known books.  He also describes events in his own life in terms of writing techniques and plots. Booksellers will be quite familiar with the problem customers Fikry deals with. They may or may not share his opinion of book signing parties.

All parents of toddlers will relate to the challenge that faces A.J. as he learns to care for Maya.  Foster and adoptive parents will enjoy watching A. J. interact with Jenny, the young social worker who is stuck with Maya’s complicated case. By this time Maya and A.J. had developed a relationship. He was not ready to put her in the system unless he had a say in her placement. You can imagine how that went.


There is too much gold in the book to display in this small space. The characters are very well-developed. Several subplots and characters I have not described will also captivate readers. I loved the book even more the second time I read it. Please don’t miss this treasure if you love people or books.

Don’t miss our other reviews that also deal with how people face grief and loss.

 

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
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Review of It is Well, How WWII Affected One Family

It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart

We’ve all heard the saying that war is hell. It Is Well, by James D. Shipman takes us to  Wake Island when it is attacked by Japan and to Fort Benning, Georgia for a brutal look at basic training. Then we move to Europe for a taste of fighting in Sherman tanks. We also see how widowed father Jonathan Beecher worries about his two sons who are involved overseas and his daughter who seems headed for trouble at home.  In the midst of all this he is fighting to save his hardware store. The war makes inventory hard to acquire and more expensive.

It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart: Review of It is Well by James Shipman
Sherman Tank, in Public Domain Courtesy of Pixabay.com

I don’t usually read war novels, but this book seemed the best of my six choices to read  free on my Kindle before release this month, through my Prime membership, . The book is easy to understand, but I found it emotionally hard to read. The only book that affected me somewhat the same way was Andersonville, by Mac Kinlay Kantor.

The story of the Andersonville Fortress which the Confederates used as a concentration camp for Union prisoners during the Civil War is now available in DVD. My stomach and emotions would not be strong enough to watch it.  I didn’t feel like eating for two weeks after I read it. Fortunately, It Is Well is not quite as graphic, but it is still a vivid picture of what those in war zones faced and what their families suffered at home during World War II.

The Beecher Family before Pearl Harbor

Jonathan Beecher lived with his two sons, Matthew and Luke, and his daughter Mary, in Snohomish, a small town near the coast of Washington State, just southeast of Everett.  Jonathan’s wife Helen had died of cancer when the book opens and the family is together for the funeral. Helen had made Jonathan promise before she died that he would never remarry.

Although Jonathan urges Matthew to stay home and help him at the store, Matthew opts to return to his job as a civilian construction worker in the Philippines. He tells his father he will probably return home in April of 1942, when his job is done. He is then transferred to Wake Island.

It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart: Review of It is Well by James Shipman
Map of Pacific Islands, Including Wake Island, Public Domain, 1919

Jonathan had had high hopes for Matthew. He was intelligent and knew how to apply himself, but had no desire to go to college as his father  wanted him to. So Jonathan pinned his hopes on Mary, who was also intelligent enough to go to college.

She was very helpful at home and at the store, but she disappointed him by welcoming the attentions of a much older policeman Jonathan knew was up to no good. Mary appeared to be willing to accept the counsel of her father not to date him, but she then later eloped with him. As Jonathan suspected, he turned out to be abusive.

Luke, the younger son was lazy. He tried to get through life with his good looks and smooth talking. He was also a prankster who had little respect for authority and often got into trouble. His father worried he’d never be a productive person. He knew he couldn’t rely on Luke for any help at all.

Pearl Harbor Changes Everything for the Family

The Beecher family attended the Snohomish Free Methodist Church where Jonathan is a pillar. After the service on December 7, 1941, his friend the pastor introduces him to a new church member, Sarah Gilbertson, a widow with a daughter. He explains that Sarah will be helping out at the church, and that Jonathan may be seeing her on the days he mows the lawn.

As they are talking, Jonathan notices a commotion in the church yard with a crowd gathering. He goes to see what’s causing the excitement and learns the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.  The young men are already talking about enlisting . Jonathan knows Luke, and tells him not to go, or at least to wait a bit to see if they really will need him. Luke, being Luke, doesn’t listen. He has no idea what the Army is like. He believes it is one more adventure he can get through without much work or effort, so he enlists.

It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart: Review of It is Well by James Shipman
Pearl Harbor Attack, Photo by Paul Walsh, Flickr Commons CC 2.0 Generic License

After he is living alone again, Jonathan is lonely. He and Sarah become friends with the understanding that they can never become more than friends. Sarah is not happy with that, and neither is Jonathan, but he feels bound before God by his promise to Helen not to marry again.

All Is Not Well at Home or Overseas or at Fort Benning

The Japanese invade Wake Island and Matthew had to learn to stand alone in the face of circumstances he’d never imagined he’d have to face. Luke discovers his disrespect for authority has severe consequences in the Army. For me, painful as it was to read, the important part of the book was watching these boys grow into what they needed to be.

Mary also learned that her disregard of her father’s guidance has made her life miserable and dangerous. Jonathan, meanwhile, knows he has fallen in love with Sarah and crosses the line by kissing her. Then he is filled with guilt and knows he needs to go back to just being friends. Sarah is not willing and breaks the relationship.

Meanwhile, the hardware store is more in debt every day. Supplies cost more because of the war that makes nails and  other tools scarce. His customers have less to spend because of the war. Jonathan is trying to save his business.

The reader watches as the  characters fight their own internal and external battles. Most begin to realize that the faith they have is weak or non-existent. They begin to seek God as best they can.  They see how poorly equipped they are to survive physically or emotionally with no hope. By the end, all the characters have grown in character through what they have suffered.

 M4 Sherman Tank Print ABH Pearl Harbor Acrylic Print Pearl Harbor Memorial Print USS Arizona Burning In Pearl Harbor Poster WW2 Sherman Tank Poster

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My Opinion of It Is Well

This book is very well-written with complex characters whose lives you want to follow. The author shows every bit as much as he tells. Even though I don’t like war stories, especially battle scenes and human misery, this book drew me in and I couldn’t put it down.

I was a war baby sheltered in America. My own dad was rejected by the Army because he had flat feet, so I never heard any first-hand war stories. This book opened my eyes to what our infantry can experience in battle and the enormity of their physical and mental anguish. And I was only reading about it. They live it. No wonder so many come home unable to share their experiences except with their Army buddies!

Although though the plot was engaging, it was merely the vehicle to show us how the characters matured as they faced their inner and external demons. I won’t be a spoiler and tell you how the book ends. I’m hoping you will take this journey of discovery yourself.

The Kindle edition was the first Kindle novel I’ve read in a while that still has the X-Ray feature. I miss it when a book doesn’t have it — especially if it’s a book I want to review. Kindle books aren’t as easy to scan and flip through as paper books, and the X-Ray feature makes it easier to remember all the characters and important parts of the plot.

 It Is Well: A Novel Andersonville Andersonville

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My Recommendations

I would recommend It Is Well to those who enjoy realistic historical fiction, especially that which relates to World War II. There is blood and gore, as you might expect, and cruelty. It was hard for me to read those parts. I am more sensitive to these things than most people I know. Yet each of these episodes contributes to the growth of the characters. They aren’t there just to be sensational.

I would not recommend this to people suffering from depression since there aren’t many happy moments until near the end. These were not happy times. The book is realistic and doesn’t paint a rosy picture of war at home or abroad. It does portray the devastating effect war has on all involved, including civilians. If you’d like to better understand what we now call “the greatest generation,” I urge you to read this book.

It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart: Book Review of It is Well by James Shipman
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Who Pays the Price of an Affair? A Review of Out of the Blue by Gretta Mulrooney

I doubt if people ever forget the first person who steals their heart – that precious first love. Few people forget losing that love, either. When Aiden tells his significant other Liv over dinner one night that he wants to break off their relationship so he can find himself and explore the world without being tied down, etc., she is crushed and unable to understand why she wasn’t adventure enough for him after they had been soul mates for a year. This review of Out of the Blue by Gretta Mulrooney explores some of the complications of the many emotions we call love.

The relationship with Aiden is past history when Liv Caleghan marries Douglas Hood, a surgeon she met when he tended to her tonsils during an emergency room visit. It was only later, after they were married, she realized he was an alcoholic. As the book opens Liv is just planning on a quiet evening in, waiting for Doug to get home from a business trip when the phone rings.

She already knows the caller will tell her that Douglas is drunk again somewhere and she will need to come get him. This time he fell asleep on the train ride home and missed his station. She goes to pick him up, all the time thinking about the letter her father gave her with the keys to her Nanna’s home in Ireland, which she had just inherited. They represent freedom to her – a chance to get away for a breather to decide what to do about Douglas, her, marriage, and her life.

She has always wanted to be a mother, but Douglas had denied her that. Instead she has had to mother him and enable him, and she constantly wonders how long he can keep his job if he doesn’t get help. He has made half-hearted attempts to stop drinking, but they never succeed. She loves him, but she is tired of living this way. He has promised to make one very serious attempt at a live-in rehab spa while Liv is in Ireland, deciding what she will do with Glenkeen, her grandmother’s house. Her hopes aren’t very high that Douglas will succeed this time. She is not sure they can fix their broken marriage. ‘How is it she, wonders, that I love him but I can’t wait to get away from him?”

Who Pays the Price of an Affair? A Review of Out of the Blue by Gretta Mulrooney

Meanwhile, Aiden also married. His wife Maeve is a reliable, faithful woman and a wonderful mother to their children, whom he also loves very much. He had just left a successful computer career because he hated the job and had moved his family from Manchester, over Maeve’s protests, to Castlegray to sell vegetables in the market. He also supplies his his mother in-law, Eileen O’Donovan’s grocery store at Redden’s Cross, the closest place to Glenkeen to buy provisions. By now you have probably guessed that Aiden has discovered Liv is now in the area.

Aiden loves his wife, but has never felt the same way about her as he did about Liv. He doesn’t like the way she decorates the house and doesn’t feel comfortable there, but doesn’t say anything because she sees to feel he owes it to her to let her make decisions about the house since he uprooted her life when they moved. He now regrets breaking off the relationship with Liv, and especially the cowardly way he did it. Now that he has seen her again, he can’t stop thinking about her and he also dwells more on the ways he and Maeve are different. The reader will soon pick up on his selfish streak. He can’t resist going to pay Liv a call at Glenkeen.

Liv is vulnerable, and although she knows it’s not right, she allows Aiden back into her life and Glenkeen to become their love nest, feeling confident they won’t be found out. When they are, Aiden moves in with Liv and the two plan to continue the repairs on Glenkeen, grow a garden for Aiden’s vegetables, and spend the rest of their lives together there. That’s when things get really complicated.

The author does a great job in developing the characters enough so that you will feel for all of them as the plot works itself out. The author has injected enough realism into this novel to make a happily ever after ending impossible. Aiden’s rash decision to dump Liv years ago has limited his options once they find each other again. When married people who have affairs also have children, there are consequences beyond one’s own feelings.

Who Pays the Price of an Affair? A Review of Out of the Blue by Gretta Mulrooney

As I read this book, I bled in my heart with each character who was hurt. The characters had to deal with love, responsibility, lust, and selfishness as they lived out their lives in the book. The love nest at Glenkeen was invaded and Liv and Aiden could not ignore making hard decisions that would affect more lives than their own. It is only after Liv makes one of those hard decisions that her Great Uncle Owen reveals an old family secret that explains much that Liv had wondered about.

This book raises many questions about the nature of love. When the chemistry is right between two people, does it justify their following their feelings when doing so will break up one or two families? Who is to know if this kind of love will last any longer than the love for the previous partner lasted? Should people in love expect to always love everything about their marriage? If they have differences does it justify looking elsewhere for happiness? And what about the cases where people fall in love accidentally without ever really wanting to find someone else? Is an affair ever right? What can one do to affair-proof a marriage?

 OUT OF THE BLUE a gripping novel of love lost and found How to Help Your Spouse Heal From Your Affair: A Compact Manual for the Unfaithful How to Grow Affair Proof Hedges Around Your Marriage Intimacy After Infidelity: How to Rebuild and Affair-Proof Your Marriage Recovering Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity

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