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REVIEW: Demon Lover by Juliet Dark

Dear Ms. Dark,

This was an especially difficult book to grade. After much reflection, I have decided to recommend it because of the strength of the prose and what, I believe, are the very engaging middle sections of the book. However, despite the fact that Ballantine is billing this book as a paranormal romance, I think that this marketing is somewhat misleading. Although, the book plays with the tropes of both the gothic romance and the PNR, the structure of the novel is probably more akin to both literary fiction and fantasy than either of those latter genres.

Demon Lover Juliet WardCailleach McFay, newly minted PhD, is on the job market. Her one cherished dream is to get a position at her undergraduate alma mater, NYU so that she can continue to live in New York City. Like many New Yorkers, Callie is convinced that there are still only 13 states in the Union and that New York City is at the center of both the nation and the universe. However, she decides to interview with Fairwick College in upstate New York anyway. After all, there are no guarantees when it comes to academic jobs.  Fairwick is a small college town whose golden age passed with the shipping barons of the late 19th century. Now, the town is a little seedy and quite economically depressed with its past glories only visible in the grand old houses that line the streets. It is one of these houses, resting at the edges of a national forest, that convinces Callie to take the job. A grand Victorian, the home was once owned by Dahlia LaMotte, the gothic novelist but now stands empty having failed to sale several times since the death of LaMotte’s niece. From the moment Callie walks by it, the house seems to call to her, seducing her.

Such a pretty house to be deserted, I thought. The breeze sighed through the woods as if agreeing. As I got close I saw the vergeboard trim along the pointed eaves was beautifully carved with vines and trumpet-shaped flowers. Above the doorway in the pediment was a wood carving of a man’s face, a pagan god of the forest, I thought, from the pinecone wreath resting on his abundant flowing hair. I’d seen a face like it somewhere before . . . perhaps in a book on forest deities . . . The same face appeared in the stained-glass fanlight above the front door.

Startled, I realized I’d come all the way up the steps and was standing at the front door, my hand resting on the bronze door knocker, which was carved in the shape of an antlered buck. What was I thinking? Even if no one lived here it was still private property.

When Callie discovers that whoever buys the house will have exclusive access to all of Dahlia LaMotte’s papers, her decision is made. A beautiful Victorian mansion with a library and the papers of a dead novelist is a wet dream of mine, so I understood the selling point of this.

It isn’t before long that Callie discovers that Fairwick isn’t what it seems. The college is populated with stranger than usual professors, odd exchange students, and many secrets. Her house, too, is strange—as strange as the manors that populate LaMotte’s novels. It is supposedly haunted by an incubus—the very demon lover that she wrote about in her dissertation, and it is rumored that this demon was who inspired Dahlia LaMotte’s more lurid writing. It isn’t long before Callie begins to believe that the tales are true and when she begins to experience intense and very sexual dreams, the reality of both her teaching and her long distance boyfriend seem to diminish. But these aren’t the only dreams Callie experiences. She also begins to dream about a line of people fleeing their country and a man on horseback, a man she knows that her dream self is in love with. The more Callie allows the dreams of the shadow man to take over her life, the more real he seems to become. And the more real he seems to become, the more her feelings begin to morph into love. But is it possible to fall in love with a demon? A love talker, who does nothing but seduce you with sex? At one point Callie says to him, “You’ve got a lot to learn about women, pal. There’s more to love than being good in the sack.” This love plot is complicated by the other threads of the narrative which include: the mystery of the town and the college, a mystery involving a cursed student, and a mystery involving Callie’s own family history. The way in which these plots are intertwined and resolved is part of the pleasure of reading this book. I don’t want to go into too much detail about them because I don’t want to give too much away.

What I’d like to discuss in this review, instead, is what I believe might be the frustrating or difficult aspects of the book for romance readers. And also talk about my own reading experience of this book. I will try to do this without revealing any spoilers. This review, then, is going to be a little different. I’m going to give as many textual examples as I can so you can see what I mean.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book when I started reading it.  Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I liked this book when I finished it. But I kept thinking about it. And it certainly had a very strong emotional effect on me. The love story in it was disturbing and dark—which I liked. Perhaps I identified with it more than I ought to admit publically. Part of the reason I think this book was difficult was because it doesn’t adhere to the expected genre progression. The way the plot plays out is very different than what I’ve become used to as a romance reader. I had to constantly re-adjust my expectations, recognize that the book was not going to be like other romances.

I think, too, that the heroine, Callie can be a sometimes difficult character to sympathize with and this affected my enjoyment. As a romance reader, I’m used to identifying with and liking the heroine right away. When I don’t, I feel that there is something wrong with the book. I had to actively keep reading after the first chapter, reminding myself that despite the marketing, this book was doing something different than the standard paranormal. Like most Gothics, it is written in the first person. Callie as a narrator swings between being an intelligent, observant and likeable woman to being a total douche. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean by looking at the first few chapters. I think that these portions really indicate the problems with Callie’s character and also show the ways in which this book can be frustrating. I also believe that it illustrates the strengths of the book and, ultimately, why I decided to recommend it.

“So, Dr. McFay, can you tell me how you first became interested in the sex lives of demon lovers?”

The question was a bit jarring, coming as it did from a silver-chignoned matron in pearls and a pink tweed Chanel suite. But I’d gotten used to questions like these. Since I’d written the bestselling book Sex Lives of the Demon Lovers (the title adapted from my thesis, The Demon Lover in Gothic Literature: Vampires, Beasts, and Incubi), I’d been on a round of readings, lectures, and, now job interviews that focused on the sex in the title.

Okay. No. The problem with this is that not only is it inaccurate (graduate students do not have time to query their dissertations out to commercial publishing houses and/or agents, defend their dissertations, AND look for a job. The academic job application process is very intensive, competitive and exhausting), but more importantly, it doesn’t make me very sympathetic to Callie nor is the book being a bestseller in any way important to the plot that follows. It is important that Callie studies demon lovers and Gothic fiction, but totally unnecessary to any of the plot that her monograph be a bestseller. The popularity of her research is totally de trop. Granted, this may grate on me more than the average reader because I am a graduate student who studies a very similar topic. Ditto the fact that Callie not only has a bestselling book already, but:

And it wasn’t that I hadn’t had plenty of other interviews. While most new Ph.Ds had to fight for job offers, because of the publicity surrounding Sex Lives I had already had two offers (from tiny colleges in the Midwest that I’d turned down) . . .

I fucking hate you, bitch. That was my first irrational response, colored by my own professional interests. But I moved on from that. I kept soldiering on. After all, this may just reflect the fantasy of the author and while it is totally annoying and unnecessary, is it any more annoying than heroines who are introduced in the first page as most the beauteous and desirable woman in the world? With flowing red tresses, violet eyes, and slender necks? No. No, it isn’t.

Then I was rewarded for my patience with the book by this lovely description of Dahlia LaMotte, the fictional gothic author whose books create a meta-fictional frame to the story.

They had been reprinted in the sixties when authors like Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt made Gothic romance popular again. You could still find copies of those reprints—tattered paperbacks featuring nightgown-clad heroines fleeing a looming castle on their covers—on the Internet, but I hadn’t had to buy them there. I’d found them hidden behind the “good books” on my grandmother’s bookshelves, a dozen books all with the name Emmeline Stoddard written on their flyleaves, and devoured them the summer I was twelve—

Back on board with you, Callie! I know those types of books. And how many of us have had similar experiences of discovery with romance novels? I love that description. And I love the excitement that Callie feels at the idea that the house belonged to Dahlia LaMotte and the chance to read the un-edited drafts of those beloved childhood books.

But then she goes and says something douchie again.

After consuming Diana’s ample tea, I decided that although I was too full for a run, I’d better take a long walk to burn off the scones and clotted cream.

Bite me, you skinny ho with your “job offers” and your “bestselling book.” So I was annoyed again. But then I get this:

It wasn’t raining hard when I reached the inn, so I stopped on the other side of the road and peered through the hedge at Honeysuckle House. The face on the pediment seemed to look back at me. The raindrops streaming down its cheeks looked unnervingly like tears. Suddenly the rain began to fall harder. I crossed the street and sprinted up the steps to the porch, stopping to shake the rain out of my hair and off my jacket so I wouldn’t shed water all over Diana’s hooked rugs and chintz-upholstered furniture. A thump on the wooden steps behind me made me turn around, sure that someone had followed me up the steps, but no one was there. Nothing was there but the rain, falling so hard now that it looked like a gray moiré curtain that billowed and swelled in the wind. For a moment I saw a shape in the falling water—a face, as if just behind the watery veil, a face I knew, but from where? Before I could place it, the face was gone, blown away in a gust of wind. Only then did I recall where I’d seen that face. It was carved into the pediment of Honeysuckle House.

And I’m back with you, baby.

Once Callie settles into life at Fairwick College, she becomes a much more tolerable person. Her unrealistic success as an academic fades into the background as her teaching, research, and the relationship with the incubus come to the forefront of the story. In fact, Callie is much more palatable as a teacher and the bits talking about grading are funny and true. What I had to ask myself was whether I was annoyed by Callie because of the unrealistic depiction of academia or because she was a more flawed character than I am comfortable with? I realized that it was the latter, a realization which forced me to ask myself whether I would have been annoyed with similar flaws in a hero? The answer is, disturbingly, no. Callie is a snob, but that’s part of her character arc. And if her academic success—albeit unrealistic success—was given to a male character of a similar age would I have had the same knee-jerk, antagonistic reaction? No. I don’t think I would have.  I am not comfortable with that reaction and it has made me think about the way I relate to female characters in books generally. I will not got into my thoughts on the matter here, but suffice it to say I had to re-evaluate my reaction to Callie and realize that my reaction to her was not necessarily a result of failed writing, but my own expectations of both my profession and what a heroine should be.

There was much that I liked about this book. The pacing is slow and the plotting surprised me. I enjoyed both of those aspects. The slow pacing coupled with the long descriptions of the town, the college, secondary characters, and the house, allowed me as a reader to inhabit the world of the book in a way I have not done in quite a long time. Moreover, the slow pacing built the tension that I expect to feel in a Gothic novel.

As an academic, I enjoyed the self-conscious awareness the book had of its place within the Gothic genre. The way that Dark uses LaMotte’s books and excerpts from those books to comment on and add to Callie’s experiences was very well done. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of those books and I could tell that Dark loves the genre as well. They were not parodies of Gothics, but loving imitations by someone who enjoyed every creak and shadow, every murderous uncle and brooding hero of a Holt novel.

The secondary characters that populate this book are not there just for show. From the freshman student, Nicky Ballard, who is suffering under a century old family curse to the vampiric Russian professors who no one ever sees, I was equally interested in the stories of these characters as I was in the main conflict between Callie and her house.

So let me recap. The strength of this book is in its pacing, which is slow, the development of the characters both primary and secondary, and the tightly woven plot. I enjoyed the meta-fictional aspects of the book, the incorporation of folklore and scholarship into the fantasy plot. I ended up coming to like the heroine who, though at times difficult to sympathize with, was complex and engaged with the world around her. She was strong intellectually not physically and that was something I appreciated because I think that paranormal romance often favors physically adept heroines but not intellectually adept heroines. That’s not to say that Callie doesn’t make some really fuckwitted mistakes in this book or that her perspective isn’t flawed (and lets not forget the wildly exaggerated and often inaccurate depiction of academia), because it is. But the more I think about Callie’s flawed perspective, the more I think this is not an accident of characterization but a part of Callie’s personality. Her snobbery is something she has to overcome in order to accept the situation she is in and make things right in the world that she has entered. I think we see the best of Callie in the way that she relates to her students, and in her desire to make things right in both the town and the community of fantastic creatures she has stumbled upon. In many ways, Callie is a very compassionate and accepting person and this is reflected in her relationships to other women and her students. Her love for the incubus is both complex and difficult. I think this is reflected in the weird way she thinks on these issues and sometimes dismisses them. It is only in the last few pages that she begins to realize the complexity of her own emotions.

WARNING: This book has a very ambiguous ending. It does not resolve. There is no HEA because, in effect, there is no real ending. The ARC I got from Netgalley gave no indication that this book would have a sequel so when I finished the book for the first time, I was left feeling betrayed. I immediately went to the Internet. The author, Juliet Dark, has no webpage although she does have a Facebook page. It was there that I learned that there is an intended sequel entitled Water Witch. I look forward to that book and I really hope that it has an ending. I would very much dislike it if the romantic relationship between Callie and her demon lover was not resolved. And I sure as hell hope it is resolved happily. However, I trust that it will be because of the way in which different elements of this book act as sign posts to that resolution occurring.

I would like to add that I would not have felt the level of betrayal I did at the unresolved ending if I had not been as emotionally invested in the characters and plot of this novel as I was.

Thus, after much reflection, thought and head-scratching, I have decided to give this book a B+ for the strength of the prose, plot and characterization as well as the emotionally rich love story. However, I want to emphasize that this book as a stand-alone is NOT a romance. Moreover, Callie as a heroine as well as the way the novel progresses might be frustrating in the extreme to readers. Neither she nor it are everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who may be interested in a slightly more literary take on the paranormal romance, this book might be for you.


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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.


  1. Jane
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 07:09:17

    I didn’t respond as well to this book as you did. I found the plot fairly slow to unspool and the ghost/demon/fae type of world the author built contributed to a slow pacing of the book. Callie wasn’t interesting to me as a narrator. As you indicated, she trended toward perfection: young, successful, beautiful, thin. While she was strong intellectually, she was also very powerful within the construct of the magical world. We spend a lot of time in Callie’s headspace and thus in order to like this book, the reader has to connect with Callie.

    Because of the pacing and the length of the book, I think my disappointment at the ending was even more pronounced.

    I was a bit skeeved that the demon lover visits Callie as a young girl and now that he is back, he comes back in a form that provides sexual pleasure. I felt like this was a cheap way of trying to provide thrills in an otherwise slow book (sex scene within the first 20 pages anyone?)

    I did like the connection Callie had to the author and like you said, the loving way in which Dark gave homage to the Gothics. The story is more literary in tone and at times, felt like an insider’s book with the constant literary cross references.

  2. kara-karina
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 10:19:12

    I felt the same way about this book, I loved the Gothic feel of it, its strength in tiny little details and embellisgments, and I also had to keep reminding my self not to expect the same routine as I would from a straight PNR. As you said this isn’t romance per se. The book came out in UK in July as Incubus by Carol Goodman, and I actually prefer UK cover and UK name for it more. It doesn’t scream PNR as much as Dark Lover :)
    P.S. My favorite is Callie’s cute mouse familiar. Wasn’t he adorable?

  3. kara-karina
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 10:20:39

    correction *demon lover* not *dark lover* :)

  4. Bettie
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 11:17:11

    Bite me, you skinny ho with your “job offers” and your “bestselling book.”

    Hee. I’ve never read an academic Mary Sue before. I think I might prefer a bestselling dissertation and easily-obtained tenure-track position to violet eyes and flowing scarlet locks.

    Thanks for so clearly outlining the features of this book and your issues with them. I enjoy less-than-likable heroines and was really curious about the story, but I think the unresolved ending will make me crazy. I await your review of the sequel. If a resolution is provided, I’ll buy and read this book then.

  5. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 11:24:19

    Well, the summation had me sold but then I went looking and a) it’s not available until Dec 27 and b) it’s $9.99 at Amazon. No sale.

  6. Lazaraspaste
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 11:25:04

    @kara-karina: That’s very interesting about the name change and the title change. I think that has a huge affect on how you read a book.

    I had to actively re-orient the way I thought about this book because it isn’t a romance or a UF. It reminds me of the time I watched Blow Up on AMC. The announcer introduced it as a mystery. As such, I was expecting it to resolve and develop like a mystery novel. When it didn’t, I hated it. I had to re-define it before I could like it. Because it wasn’t a mystery and selling it that way was a disservice to the audience.

    I think that same thing happened to me with this book.

  7. JL
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 11:30:38

    Hmm… “wildly exaggerated and often inaccurate depiction of academia”? Definitely crosses this one off the list for me. Shame, too, since you’ve rated it so highly otherwise.

    One of the reasons these Mary Sue portrayals of academics (@Bettie, I actually find them inescapable when reading books about academics) are so frustrating to me is that they seem to diminish the work of slogging through grad school and the like. It’s not enough to get a bloody PhD, but now you need a bestselling book on top of it all to be ‘special’? The reality is that even getting a tenure-track job interview in this day and age is something other academics marvel at and will be jealous about.

    I know academics complain a lot about our portray in romance novels, but I suspect that if authors did the same thing with nurses or teachers or whatever other professions, it would upset people just the same. For instance, if authors felt the need to show that a nurse was the super-bestest nurse ever whose inventing new life-saving techniques that no one’s ever thought of before and performing surgery without blinking when the doctor suddenly has a heart attack in order to deem the character worthy of becoming a heroine, rather than portraying a nurse’s important and often selfless work as impressive in an of itself, I would be just as frustrated on behalf of my friends who are nurses.

    Sorry for the long rant. Hot button issue for me.

  8. Lazaraspaste
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 12:02:38

    @Jane: I have developed a high tolerance for slowly unspooling stories. Thank you, Dombey & Son, the Dickens no one remembers. I wasn’t skeeved out by the demon having had visited Callie when she was young. Possibly because we heard about it from her perspective. I might have had a different reaction to that in a third-person narration.

    @Bettie: I, too, enjoy less than like-able heroines. I think Callie is far more like-able in the middle sections, though. Mostly because her perfection mellows out. Or maybe I had just gotten used to her voice by that time. Who knows.

    @Moriah: Bummer pants. $7.99 is about my cut-off point for an ebook.

    @JL: And therein lays the crux of the matter for me. I really had to think about how annoyed someone who knows very little about academia would be by the portrayal of the academic world. I think it will vary. I really had to separate my reactions out: my reaction to Callie vs. reaction to academia vs. reaction to special-ness of heroine, etc. etc. I will say that the most accurate aspect of the portrayal of teaching. Dark/Goodman was a teacher, so that makes sense. The research bits swing wildly from being accurate (i.e. stuff I and other people who study Victorian and Gothic fiction look at) to not at all (i.e. out of date, too far afield, etc.)

    This book really made me think about the way I look at heroines and the problems it has are not isolated to this one book or romance as a genre. I think a lot of the problems with Callie’s depiction reveals troubling issues both with the way women are represented in fiction and how women react to those representations.

  9. Liz Mc2
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 12:29:40

    I remember Dombey and Son! But I can’t say it’s a Dickens novel I’m keen to re-read, unlike some. I really enjoyed this review because of the way you examined your own response to the book. I still think the Mary-Sue academic stuff keeps me from wanting to read it.

    Do you think Dahlia LaMotte is a reference to Byatt’s Christabel LaMotte? Or is there a LaMotte they’re both alluding to and I’m too dumb to realize? Or just a coincidence?

  10. Leah Hultenschmidt
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 12:53:30

    So glad you reviewed this. Every time I saw the cover I thought it was YA since it looks so close to FALLEN.

  11. Janine
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 13:47:30

    I find academic Mary Sues frustrating too. I’m not an academic, but my dad is a Physics Professor, and reading about 23 year olds with tenure and publications (I came across one in a Johanna Lindsey book once) makes me want to grind my teeth.

  12. Kelly L.
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 13:50:02

    @Liz, I think it’s a reference to Byatt too.

    I really liked this book, even though Callie occasionally was annoying; I loved the atmosphere and the grading and the MOUSE (squee) and the town and the portrayal of Gothic lit and, quite simply, how dense the book was with subplots and secrets and stuff.

    The non-romance ending didn’t bother me, I think because I failed to notice it was supposed to be romance and brought my fantasy expectations with me instead. So, poor reading of the blurb served me well. ;) I did have an issue with the ending but it had more to do with why she sought a particular person’s help with a problem.

    Overall, it was a really yummy guilty pleasure for me. Really liked it.

  13. JL
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 15:05:30

    @Janine: The more I think about it, my frustration stems not so much with the lack of accurateness (though that annoys me, too) but with the lack of valuing the common (positive) characteristics and traits associated with academics. Professions are so often used as a short-hand for info about the character’s personality (e.g., ‘helping’ profession = nurturing and kind).

    With academic Mary Sues, it seems like extreme ambitiousness and competitiveness are privileged (not that those are bad traits) in ways that make heroines unlikeable over more realistic traits like determination, inquisitiveness and intellect. All of these qualities tend to more positively associated with men than with women, so it feels like a lot of authors are missing an opportunity to create interesting and sympathetic female characters with these traits when they misrepresent academics so ridiculously.

    All that being said, I recognize that this is a ‘poor me’ complaint about a population that generally receives the privileges of white, middle-class society so… a grain of salt is probably in order when reading this comment.

  14. Jane
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 19:42:50

    @Leah Hultenschmidt A number of reviewers on GoodReads also thought it was a YA.

  15. Lazaraspaste
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 19:58:24

    @Liz Mc2: I thought of that, too! I’m fairly certain it is a reference to Possession. Although, if there is a LaMotte that both are alluding to, I have never heard of it.

    @Leah Hultenschmidt: And@Jane: The marketing for this book is really screwy. Everything from the tags to the cover suggests a totally different sort of novel than the one that is actually there between the pages. I’m sort of baffled by why this decision was made.

    @Janine: and @JL: I agree about academic Mary Sues. I wonder if it is partially a strain of anti-intellectualism that is part and parcel of American culture these days? I agree with you JL that professions are used as short-hand and while I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with ambition, that is not really a driving characteristic of many academics. I’m generally bothered by the need in PNR and UF for the heroine to be Uber-special–especially when that translates into things like smelling good or being the chosen one and not on things like cleverness, determination, curiosity, or sheer grit.

    @Kelly L.: It just goes to show that sometimes when you have only vague idea of a book, you can enjoy more. Expectations can really mess with the way you experience reading.

  16. Jane
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 21:03:52

    @Lazaraspaste My guess is that they wanted it to sell to a certain market and thus the packaging was created to speak to that market. I think it is a mistake because it leads to dashed expectations but Ballantine (and I will never let go of these) did this before in the marketing and packaging of the Cameron Dean series which was a three book collection written by, I swear, more than one author, leading to the “hero” dying at the end of the series. Those books were marketed as PNRs. You can imagine the outrage.

    I actually felt like the early sex scenes were an attempt at pacifying the PNR crowd.

  17. eggs
    Dec 09, 2011 @ 01:11:48

    I thought it was YA too: Prom dress, faceless heroine, dead trees, crows. That’s pretty much half the YA section now.

  18. cate
    Dec 09, 2011 @ 07:10:06

    Well, I got to this bit of the review ….
    “So, Dr. McFay, can you tell me how you first became interested in the sex lives of demon lovers?”
    ….and couldn’t stop laughing because THIS – – jumped straight to mind…. So I think I’ll be passing on this one

  19. Anna M
    Dec 10, 2011 @ 03:18:31

    Academic Mary Sue? If she were male would she be Robert Langdon of the Dan Brown books? I read this under the title “Incubus” and while it was an acceptable read I had problems with the more self-aware meta aspects of someone writing about demon lovers and then meeting one for real. Not sure if I’ll be back for the sequel.

  20. willaful
    Dec 11, 2011 @ 23:24:22

    Having just finished it, I think that with a bit of editing of the naughty parts, it would have made a lovely YA. Though I suppose it’s not permissible to have an actual adult narrator in YA these days.

    Great, thorough review, Lazaraspaste. (I waited to read it til I’d finished mine.)

  21. willaful
    Dec 11, 2011 @ 23:51:14

    Wanted to add, I think it would have made a good YA because it reminded me of the books I loved when I was a YA.

    BTW, I went and upgraded it half a star after reading this; I decided I hadn’t given enough it credit for how engaged I was in the relationship.

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