The Magnolia Palace: A Novel

The Magnolia Palace: A Novel

by Fiona Davis

Narrated by Karissa Vacker

Unabridged — 11 hours, 9 minutes

Fiona Davis
The Magnolia Palace: A Novel

The Magnolia Palace: A Novel

by Fiona Davis

Narrated by Karissa Vacker

Unabridged — 11 hours, 9 minutes

Fiona Davis

Audiobook (Digital)

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Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, returns with a tantalizing novel about the secrets, betrayal, and murder within one of New York City's most impressive Gilded Age mansions.

Eight months since losing her mother in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, twenty-one-year-old Lillian Carter's life has completely fallen apart. For the past six years, under the moniker Angelica, Lillian was one of the most sought-after artists' models in New York City, with statues based on her figure gracing landmarks from the Plaza Hotel to the Brooklyn Bridge. But with her mother gone, a grieving Lillian is rudderless and desperate-the work has dried up and a looming scandal has left her entirely without a safe haven. So when she stumbles upon an employment opportunity at the Frick mansion-a building that, ironically, bears her own visage-Lillian jumps at the chance. But the longer she works as a private secretary to the imperious and demanding Helen Frick, the daughter and heiress of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, the more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family-pulling her into a tangled web of romantic trysts, stolen jewels, and family drama that runs so deep, the stakes just may be life or death.

Nearly fifty years later, mod English model Veronica Weber has her own chance to make her career-and with it, earn the money she needs to support her family back home-within the walls of the former Frick residence, now converted into one of New York City's most impressive museums. But when she-along with a charming intern/budding art curator named Joshua-is dismissed from the Vogue shoot taking place at the Frick Collection, she chances upon a series of hidden messages in the museum: messages that will lead her and Joshua on a hunt that could not only solve Veronica's financial woes, but could finally reveal the truth behind a decades-old murder in the infamous Frick family.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Audio


Best-selling novelist Davis (The Lions of Fifth Avenue) focuses on a Gilded Age mansion in this New York City-based tale. The dual time line story captures historic figures as it follows impoverished model Lillian Carter, loosely based on the real-life artists' model Audrey Munson, in 1919, and Vogue model Veronica Weber in the 1960s, with the Frick mansion as the backdrop. AudioFile Earphones Award—winning narrator and classically trained actor Karissa Vacker captures the essence of characters in both timelines, bringing a compelling narration to this story of secrets, betrayal, stolen jewels, and murder. VERDICT Readers of historical fiction and lovers of art history and the architecture of New York City will enjoy this entertaining audiobook. Suggest to fans of Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray, Kate Quinn, and Liz Trenow.—Denise Garofalo

Publishers Weekly

★ 10/11/2021

Davis (The Lions of Fifth Avenue) returns with the captivating story of a missing diamond and the history of New York’s Henry Clay Frick House, before and after it became a museum. Veronica Weber travels from London to New York in 1966, where she works as a model on a photo shoot at the Frick Collection. After a spat with the photographer, Veronica fears she has ruined her chance for a lucrative modeling career. Then she discovers a set of papers in the museum that may provide clues to finding a rare pink diamond owned by Henry Frick, which went missing in 1919, and asks for help from archivist Joshua Lawrence. In a parallel narrative set in that year, Lillian Carter, a once sought-after artists’ model, takes a job as private secretary for Henry’s daughter, Helen, hoping to finance a move to Hollywood to work as an actor. As Veronica and Joshua continue their search for the missing diamond, Davis illuminates Lillian’s role in a long-kept Frick family secret. Davis smoothly combines fact with fiction, and offers beautiful descriptions of the family’s art collection. The colliding narratives and comprehensive descriptions of the historic mansion make for Davis’s best work to date. Agent: Stefanie Lieberman, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Jan.)

From the Publisher

Praise for The Magnolia Palace
“Combining a mansion turned museum, a missing diamond, a mystery, and the lives of two young women separated by half a century, Fiona Davis stirs up a beguiling story that unfolds like a clever game of Clue. Suspicions abound, and an iconic New York City landmark stands poised to reveal a page-turning tale of wealth, family dynamics, and long-held secrets.”
—Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours

“Fiona Davis is at the top of her game in this intriguing, high-stakes novel about an iconic New York City landmark, the Frick mansion, and two women, fifty years apart, whose stories intersect within it. A family saga and historical thriller in one, The Magnolia Palace is a fast-paced, immersive delight.”
—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and The Exiles

“Rich with family drama, tangled romance, cryptic clues, and long-buried secrets, The Magnolia Palace is sure to be loved by Fiona Davis's devoted and new readers alike. A can't-miss for anyone who has sauntered through an art museum and found themselves tempted to peek behind a painting or two.”
—Sarah Penner, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary

“I savor every glorious new Fiona Davis novel and The Magnolia Palace has it all—two intriguing heroines, two fabulous time periods to get swept up in, and a delicious mystery that keeps you on tenterhooks. I loved every minute of it!”
—Martha Hall Kelly, New York Times bestselling author of Lilac Girls and Sunflower Sisters

“Once again, using her trademark brilliance, Fiona Davis transports her readers into a mysterious past lurking beneath the surface of our modern-day world. In The Magnolia Palace, two very different women from two eras enter the Gilded Age realm of famous industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick and his imperious daughter, Helen, and become part of a thrilling mystery centered on the Frick mansion that stretches through the decades. Readers will never look at a historic building quite the same way again.”
—Marie Benedict, New York Times bestselling author of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

“The magic of Fiona Davis is the tenderness with which she crafts her settings, so that they bloom into characters themselves. We come to know them. We come to love them. And they help us to understand our place in time. The Magnolia Palace is a love letter to art and history. An intriguing, beautiful read.”
—Sarah Addison Allen, New York Times bestselling author
“No one brings New York City to life like Fiona Davis. With The Magnolia Palace, Davis turns her brilliant storytelling to the Frick mansion, focusing on the strong women who made the Frick a New York icon—some on canvas, others scions of the famous family. It’s historical fiction at its best, marked by the complexity of female friendship, the glamour of the art world, and having the moxie to reinvent yourself.”
—Karin Tanabe, author of The Gilded Years
“Another brilliant historical thriller from Davis, this time set in a Gilded Age mansion in New York City. You will fall in love with Lillian, the penniless young artist’s model surviving the Spanish flu of 1919; and Veronica, the young mod model of the 1960s; and Davis’s deftly written and beautifully woven feminist storytelling.”
—Tara Moss, #1 internationally bestselling author of The War Widow

“Iconic buildings are larger-than-life characters in Fiona Davis’s novels, and The Magnolia Palace is no exception.”
New York Post

“Fascinating . . . Allows Davis also to explore the struggles of young women to be taken seriously while adding an unvarnished look at the wealthy. . . . Davis smoothly layers fact onto fiction. . . . Excellent.”
Sun Sentinel (South Florida)

“A book that's as beautiful as it is mysterious. The dual POV keeps the reader on their toes until the entire story comes together.”

“The pages breeze by as potential romances develop (maybe not the ones you’d expect) and a mystery involving the whereabouts of the Magnolia diamond unfolds. Deeper issues also undergird both narratives, which confront stereotypes about models and explore how a tragedy can warp family relationships years later. The two narratives dovetail in a satisfying way. Mystery and art lovers should relish this exciting escape into New York’s past.”
Historical Novel Society

“Bestselling author Fiona Davis builds upon the secrets of the Frick Collection in a delightful blend of emotion and adventure. . . . Davis knows exactly how to structure a story and how to switch between timelines. . . . A captivating story whose characters are richly drawn, The Magnolia Palace pays particular attention to those who might go unnoticed: the deaf private secretary, the museum intern, the organ player. We discover their private lives and public exposures, which reveal the daily messiness of human lives, the construction of the self, and the truths we try so hard to hide.”

“Davis smoothly combines fact with fiction and offers beautiful descriptions of the family’s art collection. The colliding narratives and comprehensive descriptions of the historic mansion make for Davis’s best work to date.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Davis adeptly interweaves two compelling story lines to shine a light on another NYC landmark. . . . This is historical fiction at its best, with well-developed characters, detail, art history, and mystery.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Readers are transported back to 1919 New York in this richly captivating tale.”
—Woman’s World

“Davis embellishes the real lives of the Frick family and Audrey Munson, a sculptors' muse, in a tale that will thrill fans of Anna Pitoniak and Karen Harper. She also jumps skillfully between the roaring twenties and the swinging sixties as another model explores the Frick Collection decades later. Davis's insider's perspective on the esteemed Frick family gives equal weight to those who kept the family afloat.”

“Artfully meshes the educational with the sensational.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“There are many pleasures in Fiona Davis’s novels. . . . Davis imbues [Manhattan landmarks] with intimacy and familiarity through the deeply felt emotions of her characters. Equally intriguing are the points of intersection between generations of young women. . . . Quietly seeking the truth about themselves and the world, Davis’s heroines overcome pain and loss to reach a resolution, in the past and present.”

“Fiona Davis has deployed an unmatched skill for unspooling compelling dramas amid some of New York's most glittering historical moments. . . . The Magnolia Palace tells the story of two different women whose lives are changed at the Frick mansion, giving readers the chance to soak in dual eras of history all while great love, epic loss, dazzling fortunes, and foul play are afoot.”
Town & Country

"After spending all days on screens, I love picking up an actual bookespecially if the strory transports me to a pre-screen era!...I adored going back in time to New York in the '20s." —Patty Bontekoe, Executive Editor of First For Women

Library Journal

★ 12/01/2021

In Davis's (The Lions of Fifth Avenue) latest historical novel, dual timelines seamlessly connect the lives of two women at New York's Frick Collection. In 1919, Lillian Carter (based on the real-life artists' model Audrey Munson) is the supermodel of her day and the muse of classical sculptors; her face and figure grace hundreds of famous statues throughout New York City. When her landlord's wife is murdered, Lillian is sought as a person of interest and hides away by taking a job at the Frick mansion. There she works as private secretary to Helen Clay Frick and lives among the collection's masterpieces, including a portrait of herself. In 1966, British model Veronica Weber comes to the Frick mansion (now a museum) for a photo shoot and ends up being locked in during a storm. The two timelines meet when Veronica discovers secret messages among the Frick's masterpieces and uncovers a long-lost heirloom. VERDICT Davis adeptly interweaves two compelling story lines to shine a light on another NYC landmark (after novels set in the Chelsea Hotel and the New York Public Library). This is historical fiction at its best, with well-developed characters, detail, art history, and mystery.—Catherine Coyne, Mansfield P.L., MA

Kirkus Reviews

A tale of two models, decades apart, and the Frick museum.

The latest in Davis’ series celebrating New York City landmarks (following The Lions of Fifth Avenue, 2020) features not only the Frick Collection, but several exemplars of public art, all images of the same Gilded Age model. By 1919, Lillian Carter, under the name Angelica, has earned a degree of fame as the model for sculptures gracing the New York Public Library, the Plaza Hotel, and many other venues. Groundlessly suspected of murder, Lillian plans to flee New York for Hollywood and a movie career. Instead, a series of improbable events leads her to steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s mansion, where she’s hired as personal secretary to Miss Helen, Frick’s spinster daughter. In 1966, Veronica Weber, an ingénue model from a working-class background in London, lands a potentially life-altering assignment—a Vogue photo shoot at the Frick mansion–turned-museum. But after rebelling at the sexism on set, Veronica is left behind, stranded in the Frick when a blizzard and a blackout descend simultaneously on the city. In the alternating 1919 timeline, Frick offers Lillian, who has quickly become a savvy family retainer, a bonus if she can help marry Helen off to Richard Danforth, a reluctant suitor. Abetted by Joshua Lawrence, a Frick intern, Veronica continues a scavenger hunt, left unfinished in 1919, devised by Helen to educate Danforth about the Frick masterpieces. Overshadowing the action is the horrific death of Helen’s older sister and the brutality of Frick himself, who lays waste to his own family alongside other victims of his greed. Davis skillfully weaves these undercurrents into her parallel stories, which coalesce in a suspenseful search for a (fictitious) Frick heirloom: the pink Magnolia diamond. The motivations of the two protagonists are thin: Neither seems to have ambitions that can’t be easily derailed by a man. Although her privilege certainly renders her more autonomous, Helen emerges as the true heroine here.

Artfully meshes the educational with the sensational.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940176100891
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 01/25/2022
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 366,148

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


New York City, 1919


Lillian Carter stood half naked, one arm held up like a ballet dancer, the other hanging lightly down at her side, and calculated how long she could avoid paying rent while her landlord was in jail. If Mr. Watkins was released right away, she'd have to avoid him until she pulled together enough money to pay for the one-bedroom apartment she leased in the crumbling, five-story tenement building on Sixty-Fifth Street. Not an easy task when Mr. Watkins and his wife lived off the lobby on the first floor. On the bright side, the Watkins couple had shouted each other to pieces in a terrible fight earlier that morning, the screeching carrying on for a good forty-five minutes before silence finally reigned. Not long after, as she left for work, Lillian had passed the police as they tramped up the front steps. Maybe they'd keep the tiresome man for a few days this time, as a lesson. Not that she felt any sympathy for his bulldog of a wife. Mrs. Watkins had hated Lillian on sight, especially after she discovered what Lillian did for a living.


"Angelica, your drapery has fallen. Again."


Mr. Rossi waited, holding a boxwood shaper in one hand and a rag in the other. After six years of posing, Lillian had never quite gotten used to being called by her stage name, chosen by her mother, Kitty, to protect her family's reputation, which was a real laugh. As if they were the Astors or something. Lillian pulled the silk up over her shoulder so only one breast was exposed. The material was slippery and refused to stay in place.


Mr. Rossi was a quick worker, and the clay figure in front of him was nearly finished. This would probably be her last day on the job, and she'd only been posing for an hour. So far today, she'd made seventy-five cents. A little over one cent a minute. She kicked herself for not charging more. Kitty, before she died in February, had told her to demand no less than a dollar an hour, one of more than a dozen pieces of instruction she'd thrown out at Lillian between coughing fits, as if she were trying to fill up a lifetime of parental guidance before she went. Lillian should have written these things down, but she had been too busy making tea and fetching blankets, calling again and again for the doctor, who was too busy with other patients stricken by the Spanish flu to come.


"Angelica. Please."


The drapery had fallen. Again.


"It's cold in here, I'm afraid my shivering is making it fall. Could you light the fire?"


Mr. Rossi's bulging black eyes were punctuated by heavy brows, but any hint of menace was tempered by an unfortunately high-pitched voice. "I have nothing to light it with. It's the first of October, not cold at all."


"Well, you're wearing clothes."


"I'm sorry, Angelica. Do you need a break?"


He had been unrelentingly polite to her since she'd knocked on his studio door last week, asking if he needed a model. He'd let out a gasp, recognizing her instantly, and she'd pushed her way inside and talked nonstop until he agreed to let her pose. Since he'd only recently taken over a studio in the popular Lincoln Arcade building on the Upper West Side, he hadn't had time to learn from the other, long-term tenants that she was, at the ripe age of twenty-one, washed up.


"No, I don't need a break. It's fine." She was lucky to have this job, she reminded herself, only her second since February, a lifetime in the New York art world.


But instead of continuing, Mr. Rossi wiped his hands on his apron and approached the model stand. "Can you angle yourself a little more?" He pushed his right hip forward slightly, as an example. "And twist like this."


Her body responded automatically, clicking into the desired position.


"Yes, that's better." But his face didn't register approval. She knew why. Her hips and legs no longer resembled the earlier statues he'd seen of her. The clean lines once heralded as the classical idea of perfection were now more padded, to put it gently. Since Kitty's death, she'd felt a consistent, gnawing hunger in her gut that would only be satiated with butterscotch candies and lemon meringue pie. Her skirts had hidden the ripples of fat at that first meeting. "Maybe let the cloth down, all the way over the legs."


Her face burned with embarrassment. The irony that she was upset to have to cover her body, when most women would be filled with shame to have to reveal it, made her let out a nervous giggle.


Mr. Rossi regarded her. "Are you all right?"


"Yes, just a little tired. My landlords got into a rousing fight early this morning. I didn't get much sleep."


"I'm sorry to hear it." He blinked a couple of times, as if he wanted to say something more, before going back to the clay study. The silence of the studio, which usually lulled her into a kind of trance, instead haunted her today.


She put a hand to her head. The exhaustion of the past several months weighed down on her. "You know, I might take a break, if you don't mind."


Mr. Rossi dropped the tool on the table beside him with a loud clatter. "Very well." He lit a cigarette but didn't move from the spot, as if ready to begin again right away.


"Perhaps I could have a quick coffee?" she asked.


He didn't answer but retreated to the small kitchenette in the back. All of the studios in the Lincoln Arcade featured the latest modern conveniences, drawing Greenwich Village artists and sculptors uptown in recent years, and creating a new Bohemia hailed as the "Sixty-Seventh Street Studio District." Kitty had predicted the northward trend early and rented an apartment west of Broadway, which meant they were constantly running into potential employers, at the post office or the grocer's. Lillian would have preferred a duplex at the recently constructed Hotel des Artistes building, with its high ceilings and gothic splendor, but Kitty had dismissed it as too expensive. With the way Lillian's bank account had dropped precipitously over the past several months, she was grateful for the decision.


Then again, if they hadn't been living in Mr. Watkins's dumpy building, crowded in with all the other tenants, maybe her mother wouldn't have gotten sick.


Mr. Rossi came back carrying two cups of coffee and handed her one. She stepped down from the model stand and reclined in a practiced move on one of several sofas that were scattered at odd angles around the space. She recognized the shabby pink one.


"You got that from Lukeman, right?"


Mr. Rossi studied it, confused. "I suppose. When I first set up here, I found a number of castoffs in the basement. Lukeman's studio is two floors up, so I wouldn't be surprised."


"I posed on that sofa for Memory." She waited for his reaction.


"Which is that one?"


For goodness' sake. "The Titanic memorial? In memory of Ida and Isidor Straus?"


Mr. Rossi gave a vigorous nod. "Of course. I've heard of it but never seen it. I haven't been here long, you see. There's a lot of the city that I haven't visited yet."


She'd enjoyed modeling for Lukeman, even though the position had been a challenge, lying across the couch sideways, one leg dangling over the edge. Before they'd started, the sculptor and Kitty had talked about how important the memorial was, commemorating the wealthy couple who had died together on the Titanic after the wife gave up her seat in the lifeboat to her maid, choosing instead to die with her husband. They'd been last seen sitting on deck chairs together as the ship sank into the icy waters. The completed statue, Lukeman explained, would stare down at a reflecting pool, and as she posed, Lillian lost herself in imagining the joy of the couple's love, the sadness of their terrible demise. The result was one of her finest portrayals, of which she was most proud.


And Mr. Rossi hadn't even seen it.


"It's beautiful," she said. "A true work of art."


"Whenever you're ready, I'd like to begin again."


She'd only taken a couple of sips. "Do you mind if I finish my coffee first?"


"Look, Angelica. We've already taken two breaks."


"What are you saying? That I'm stalling?" She had been, of course. Every fifteen minutes was another eighteen cents.


His mustache twitched as he crossed his arms.


He'd been warned. The other sculptors must have told him, after he'd already booked her for the job, that she was yesterday's news, no longer the darling of Bohemia.


Maybe if he saw Memory, he'd soften and truly appreciate all that she'd accomplished. "I suggest, Mr. Rossi, if you have the time, that you take one morning off and view it. It's not far uptown, on West End and 106th Street."


"I don't have time to take a morning off. I have to work, I have commissions to fulfill."


"Oh, now, I've been working steadily for years, and trust me, you can always ask for more time. Artists are often accommodated by their patrons that way."


"Right. I hear you're an old hand. How many years have you been at this?"


"I began when I was fifteen."


"Of course. I am in awe of all of your past likenesses. You were an inspiration to so many." His gaze drifted to her hips.


Past tense. Were.


He sighed. "Why don't we stop for today? You look tired."


"No, I'm fine. Really." She headed back to the stand, tripping on the drapery. She recovered quickly and climbed up, waiting for instruction. She couldn't lose this job. If she lost it, she wouldn't have enough for groceries, never mind rent.


"It's not right, I'm afraid. I can pay you for your time, of course, but I may need to step back and rethink this piece."


"Please, Mr. Rossi. I'm sorry." She was trying not to beg. If Kitty were here, they'd all be laughing together, her mother flattering him about his thick mustache and strong hands, teasing him as he blushed.


She wanted her mother so badly right now. In the weeks after Kitty's death, the job offers had come in one after another as the news had spread and the artists had reached out in support, making sure Lillian was all right. But in those cold, dark days, she'd been unable to leave the apartment other than to fetch the bare necessities. She'd lain on the lumpy sofa covered by a quilt, sometimes sleeping, sometimes staring up at the cracked ceiling, and ignored every entreaty. Without her mother to smooth out life's rough edges, Lillian had faltered, wallowing in her sadness in a way that Kitty would never have tolerated, which only made her sadder. After years of blaming her mother for being too controlling and protective, including the raging fight they'd had right before she'd fallen ill, Lillian's ceaseless, brittle ennui was proof that she was lost without her.


She wished more than anything to be able to once again witness the infinite ways her mother used to drive her batty: the tinny laugh, the way she hummed under her breath as she dried the dishes. To have one last look at the almond-colored eyes-a mirror of her own-but edged with a spiderweb of wrinkles. Together, they'd made a remarkable team. Watching her mother unravel over the course of her illness, from a force to be reckoned with to a frail, childlike creature, clutching at Lillian's wrist and whimpering in pain, had been her undoing.


Unable to force one more appointment from Mr. Rossi, Lillian headed to the luncheonette across the street from her building. She was starving, craving a bowl of potato soup and a slice of pie. Her mother would never have allowed such decadence.


But just this one time wouldn't hurt. She'd be more careful tomorrow, and eat only a tin of sardines. Today, after the way she'd been treated by Mr. Rossi, she deserved a little something special.


A gaggle of policemen stood across the street, arrayed on the steps of her building. Odd that they were still there. Perhaps Mr. Watkins had had another go at Mrs. Watkins. If so, Lillian could hold up her rent check for a good long time while he sat in jail. This might work out perfectly. Mother always said Lillian had marvelous luck, from being plucked from the chorus line to becoming muse to the greatest artists of this century.


And Mother was never wrong.





Her belly full but her change purse nearly empty, Lillian dawdled in the stairwell of her apartment building, trying to get a glimpse inside Mr. Watkins's apartment on the first floor. Lillian raised one eyebrow at Mrs. Brown-the building's unofficial gossipmonger, who lived next door to the Watkinses and was peering out of a crack in her door-but got nothing in return other than a quick shake of the head and pursed lips.


A police officer emerged from the Watkinses' apartment, leaving the door open behind him. At first, Lillian wondered when the Watkinses had gotten such a deep-red rug, almost scarlet, before realizing it was some kind of dried liquid, not a new runner.




Another policeman stepped to the door to shut it, but not before Lillian caught sight of a woman's bloody hand, the fingers gently, almost daintily, curled in.


She backed away, bracing herself on the banister for support, and dashed up the two flights to her landing. Inside the apartment, the soup roiling in her gut, she filled a glass with water and sat down at the tiny table in the kitchen. For all his bluster, Mr. Watkins hadn't seemed like the sort to murder his wife. They'd argue, sure, but usually it was Mrs. Watkins who had the higher volume, drowning him out with a terrible squawk.


The last time Mr. Watkins had come to collect the rent, she'd invited him into the apartment in order to speak out of the earshot of the other tenants. He'd taken his time looking around, as if assessing how much he could raise the rent for a new tenant. Hers was one of the smaller apartments in the building, with only one bedroom, where she and her mother had slept. Two windows looked out on the dreary courtyard in the back, the black metal of the fire escape glinting in the late-summer sun. A galley kitchen served as the entryway, the table and chairs tucked in an alcove to one side, and the living area wasn't much larger. Mr. Watkins eventually turned his attention to Lillian, offering up a sympathetic sigh. "Your mother was a lively woman, now, wasn't she?"

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