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The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen

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A sudden death in the family delivers Julia a box of love letters. Dusty with age, they tell the story of an illicit affair between the brilliant twentieth-century novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, and a young academic called Humphry House - Julia's grandfather. Using fascinating unpublished correspondence, The Shadowy Third exposes the affair and its impact by following the overl A sudden death in the family delivers Julia a box of love letters. Dusty with age, they tell the story of an illicit affair between the brilliant twentieth-century novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, and a young academic called Humphry House - Julia's grandfather. Using fascinating unpublished correspondence, The Shadowy Third exposes the affair and its impact by following the overlapping lives of three very different characters through some of the most dramatic decades of the twentieth century; from the rarefied air of Oxford in the 1930s, to the Anglo-Irish Big House, to the last days of Empire in India and on into the Second World War. The story is spiced with social history and a celebrated supporting cast that includes Isaiah Berlin and Virginia Woolf. In the style of Bowen, a novelist obsessed by sense of place, Julia travels to all the locations written about in the letters, retracing the physical and emotional songlines from Kolkata to Cambridge, Ireland to Texas. With present day story telling as a colourful counterpoint to the historical narrative, this is a debut work of unparalleled personal and familial investigation.


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A sudden death in the family delivers Julia a box of love letters. Dusty with age, they tell the story of an illicit affair between the brilliant twentieth-century novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, and a young academic called Humphry House - Julia's grandfather. Using fascinating unpublished correspondence, The Shadowy Third exposes the affair and its impact by following the overl A sudden death in the family delivers Julia a box of love letters. Dusty with age, they tell the story of an illicit affair between the brilliant twentieth-century novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, and a young academic called Humphry House - Julia's grandfather. Using fascinating unpublished correspondence, The Shadowy Third exposes the affair and its impact by following the overlapping lives of three very different characters through some of the most dramatic decades of the twentieth century; from the rarefied air of Oxford in the 1930s, to the Anglo-Irish Big House, to the last days of Empire in India and on into the Second World War. The story is spiced with social history and a celebrated supporting cast that includes Isaiah Berlin and Virginia Woolf. In the style of Bowen, a novelist obsessed by sense of place, Julia travels to all the locations written about in the letters, retracing the physical and emotional songlines from Kolkata to Cambridge, Ireland to Texas. With present day story telling as a colourful counterpoint to the historical narrative, this is a debut work of unparalleled personal and familial investigation.

45 review for The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen

  1. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    I have long been a lover of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing and so I was excited to come across this memoir. It came about when Julia Parry’s uncle died and she inherited a box of letters; correspondence between her grandfather, Humphry House and Bowen. Anyone familiar with the life of Elizabeth Bowen, will know that her marriage to Alan Cameron provided security, rather than romance and, throughout her life, Bowen had many marital affairs, including with Charles Ritchie, which is well documented in t I have long been a lover of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing and so I was excited to come across this memoir. It came about when Julia Parry’s uncle died and she inherited a box of letters; correspondence between her grandfather, Humphry House and Bowen. Anyone familiar with the life of Elizabeth Bowen, will know that her marriage to Alan Cameron provided security, rather than romance and, throughout her life, Bowen had many marital affairs, including with Charles Ritchie, which is well documented in the book, “Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973,” by Victoria Glendinning and Judith Robertson. Glendinning also wrote a biography of Bowen, shortly after her death, and we get some interesting glimpses into why so much of what was mentioned about Bowen’s early affair with Humphry House was only hinted at, as Parry discusses her grandmother, Madeline’s, interview with the biographer. As such, it is fascinating to read of this early affair with Humphry House and the triangle between Bowen, Humphry and Madeline. Although Parry obviously struggles with her conscience at times and is eager to present her grandfather as a more sympathetic character than modern sensibilities make him, she does a good job of being fair to all of those involved and allowing her grandmother to step out of the shadows. Elizabeth met Humphry at a dinner in Oxford in 1933. By the early 1930’s, Elizabeth was established in the literary world, living in Oxford and enjoying the intellectual company of admiring young men – Humphry was nine years younger than Elizabeth, and obviously impressed at meeting a ‘writer.’ At the time he had already met, and proposed to, Madeline Church, but was having a crisis of faith and career and embarked on an affair with the older, glamorous Elizabeth. Obviously, you will want to read this yourself and so I do not wish to give details of their relationship and how it affected his marriage with Madeline, but some of this does make uncomfortable reading. Humphry was a young man who, frankly, felt that marriage vows were more for women than for men – although this could obviously be pushed aside where Elizabeth was concerned. In other words, he saw things in view of how they could best suit him and Madeline was often under-valued by both her husband and Elizabeth. Much of this, in Elizabeth’s case, was probably due to jealousy. Both Humphry, and later, Charles Ritchie, married and Elizabeth’s childlessness was a matter of sorrow to her. Meanwhile, Humphry could be insensitive and tried to force the two women into an acquaintance which was probably unwelcome on both sides. Although Parry was close to her subjects, which did not always leave to objectivity, I really enjoyed this. She follows her grandfather’s path, from Oxford to Exeter (educating the daughters of plumbers, in his words), to India and back to Oxford. Along the way, all three of those involved interact, intersect, struggle and push for dominance. There is also an interesting social history involved. As we see with Humphry’s somewhat snobbish reaction to the new universities, and social change, we also witness the growing political crisis in Europe and the reaction to it. Although Elizabeth Bowen was not overly involved, feeling readers wished for entertainment, rather than politics and stating, “younger writers claimed that the novel should serve serious purposes; in particular, they meant that the novel should be wrested from the hands of women,” which is a political statement in itself. Times change, and so do tastes, and Parry documents the lives of all involved as Elizabeth made new relationships, found herself a little out of fashion as new writers emerged, and her affair with Humphry ended. I found this a really fascinating look at their relationship and was most sympathetic to, and impressed with, Madeline’s strength and determination, her under-valued intelligence and self-reliance, as well as more understanding of Humphry, making allowances for his background, and the times, and grateful to have learnt more about Elizabeth Bowen. Both Bowen and Humphrey had personal faults, but I was delighted that the author shared this new knowledge about their relationship, about her grandmother and to possible links to her novels and fictional characters. I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    I would say this is more memoir than biography as the author is constantly present, talking about her family, her journeys, her (rather superficial) unpackings of Bowen's novels, relating them back to her grandparents. This isn't an academic book: assertions are not sourced or referenced, for example, and it's hard to see, sometimes, where the information is coming from. That said, there are mini 'lives' of House, his wife and Bowen scattered through here, and some attention to women's lives and I would say this is more memoir than biography as the author is constantly present, talking about her family, her journeys, her (rather superficial) unpackings of Bowen's novels, relating them back to her grandparents. This isn't an academic book: assertions are not sourced or referenced, for example, and it's hard to see, sometimes, where the information is coming from. That said, there are mini 'lives' of House, his wife and Bowen scattered through here, and some attention to women's lives and options, especially around marriage. So a book which is less focused, more meandering than I'd have liked - but if it sends more people back to Bowen's brilliant writing, that would be excellent.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nicola Pierce

    I finished this yesterday morning and miss it. I didn't want to finish it so soon but could not keep from turning the pages. The reason I enjoyed it so much is not just that there is a fascinating story told, about an extramarital love affair between an established writer - Bowen - and one who is just getting started - the writer's grandfather. No, the reason I enjoyed it so much is down to the warmth and sheer brilliance of Julia Parry's writing. This book shines thanks to her intelligence and I finished this yesterday morning and miss it. I didn't want to finish it so soon but could not keep from turning the pages. The reason I enjoyed it so much is not just that there is a fascinating story told, about an extramarital love affair between an established writer - Bowen - and one who is just getting started - the writer's grandfather. No, the reason I enjoyed it so much is down to the warmth and sheer brilliance of Julia Parry's writing. This book shines thanks to her intelligence and sensitivity. Is she biased - yes, she probably is but it does not take away from how she presents her research. I probably am not a fan of her grandfather but I still wished him well. The women, for me, were the stand out characters. I'm definitely going to get the Glendinning biography of Elizabeth Bowen as I want to know more about her. Furthermore, I want to read any other book that Julia Parry writes!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    A compelling, well-researched and well-written biography/memoir of the relationship between Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen and academic Humphry House – the author’s grandfather. On the death of an uncle, Julia Parry inherited a treasure trove of previously unpublished letters between Bowen and House, and used them as a starting block to delve deeper into what happened. In spite of the author’s family involvement and loyalty, the book remains nuanced and balanced, and is non-judgemental – although A compelling, well-researched and well-written biography/memoir of the relationship between Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen and academic Humphry House – the author’s grandfather. On the death of an uncle, Julia Parry inherited a treasure trove of previously unpublished letters between Bowen and House, and used them as a starting block to delve deeper into what happened. In spite of the author’s family involvement and loyalty, the book remains nuanced and balanced, and is non-judgemental – although Humphry House’s sometimes cruel behaviour towards his wife will certainly evoke censure from many readers. All in all, a fascinating read, certainly for Bowen fans, but also for anyone interested in the literary milieu in which she moved.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Des Lewis

    I love the way these biographical details are couched, so very Elizabeth, so very much the book’s author herself and her own implied character, too, and how she discovered these details by travel and lemon serendipities. Genius loci or “place-feeling” important to this book as well as to Elizabeth’s fiction. The place with ‘apple trees, mentioned in the chapter, where Humphry and Elizabeth (the latter being “a gifted schemer”) met early in their affair, thump, thump, thump… The detailed review of I love the way these biographical details are couched, so very Elizabeth, so very much the book’s author herself and her own implied character, too, and how she discovered these details by travel and lemon serendipities. Genius loci or “place-feeling” important to this book as well as to Elizabeth’s fiction. The place with ‘apple trees, mentioned in the chapter, where Humphry and Elizabeth (the latter being “a gifted schemer”) met early in their affair, thump, thump, thump… The detailed review of this book posted elsewhere under my name is too long or impractical to post here. Above is one of my observations at the time of the review.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Brenda

    Dusty old love letters harbour many secrets and historical elements...how glad I am that letters were de rigueur up until recently! Julia Parry, the author of this amazing book, inherited letters written by her brilliant-minded grandfather, Humphry House, and Elizabeth Bowen, author and socialite, as well as some penned by the longsuffering yet spirited woman Humphry marries. All three were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very different people with incredible stories. This book r Dusty old love letters harbour many secrets and historical elements...how glad I am that letters were de rigueur up until recently! Julia Parry, the author of this amazing book, inherited letters written by her brilliant-minded grandfather, Humphry House, and Elizabeth Bowen, author and socialite, as well as some penned by the longsuffering yet spirited woman Humphry marries. All three were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very different people with incredible stories. This book reveals many aspects of their lives as well as that of Bowen's husband through letters and photographs. Not only that but the author seamlessly details her physical and mental journey in tracing the lives of her grandfather and aunts through travels of her own which took her to some of their homes (and more) on three continents. Humphry and Elizabeth had an immediate intellectual connection which eventually grew into love. However, Elizabeth was married (though their marriage was not consummated) and Humphry also marries. Naturally, resentment builds to a crescendo and lessens as these (and other) relationships wax and wane. The author includes many of the letters which go back and forth with wonderful descriptions and insight into personalities. I've read several of Bowen's incredible books and can definitely see her in both her books and letters. As people they had their flaws, some more striking than others. But it is fascinating to read about what drives people to make the choices they do. All you need to enjoy this book is curiosity and the desire to learn more about people. The author's personal quest is thrilling as secret after secret, story after story, is unraveled. Thank goodness these letters and the willingness of the author to share them exist! My sincere thank you to Duckworth Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this remarkable book in exchange for an honest review. Much appreciated.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    The power of writing, in particular letters, is at the heart of this very readable book. The author’s maternal grandfather, Humphry House, had a long term and variable relationship with the well known writer, Elizabeth Bowen. They communicated by letters which conveyed a sense of the time and place, as the 1920s moved through the challenging 1930s and the Second World War. The “Shadowy Third” person for at least part of the time was Madeline, Humphry’s wife and the only character who the author The power of writing, in particular letters, is at the heart of this very readable book. The author’s maternal grandfather, Humphry House, had a long term and variable relationship with the well known writer, Elizabeth Bowen. They communicated by letters which conveyed a sense of the time and place, as the 1920s moved through the challenging 1930s and the Second World War. The “Shadowy Third” person for at least part of the time was Madeline, Humphry’s wife and the only character who the author met. There are photographs of the people involved, the places where events took place, a terrific sense of the time when the relationships involved changed. Far more than a biography, this sensitive and well written book conveys the light and shades of very real people, as the author has deployed the letters that she found from all three parties and some friends to convey the confusion, disappointment and other emotions at the time. Parry has made much of a chance discovery of a unique set of letters written by both Elizabeth and Humphry to create a book which looks at their relationship in the context of what else was going on in their lives at the time. I found it so easy to read with a style which is easy to follow. Elizabeth’s fame as a writer is probably in the ascendant at the moment with an increased interest in women writers of the mid twentieth century, as well as life on the Home Front during the Second World War. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual and fascinating book. The book opens with Parry discovering then taking possession of a set of letters between Elizabeth and Humphrey written during their relationship. Realising their importance, she seeks to put them in context of the other things happening to the couple. She points out that Humphry had to support himself by some form of paid work, whereas Elizabeth had family property in the form of Bowen’s Court in Ireland. She also married Alan Cameron “to allow herself a degree of flexibility” , though apparently the marriage was not consummated. Elizabeth was determined to be a writer, eager to gain experiences to give depth to her stories of contemporary relationships. Meeting Humphry in Oxford was a memorable event in many respects, as it would lead to a connection that survived a rather uncertain courtship with Madeline, affected by that young woman’s desire for independence and travel. Parry visits the places that were important to those concerned with the affairs, helped by the records of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, confirmed by her letters and other writings, and indeed the blue plaques which have been appearing on her homes. Parry’s knowledge of Humphry and Madeline’s progress based on family memories and photographs makes this a unique record of their lives as they intersected with Elizabeth. This was a time when Elizabeth spent the summer months in Bowen’s Court, inviting Humphry among others, including some well known names. Their relationship was not straightforward, as Humphry struggled to make a living, spending time considering the priesthood, then being disappointed in his hopes for academic posts. Elizabeth was changeable, secretive and more, as it appears from their correspondence that their relationship was the first time she had been truly intimate with a man. The other person in the triangle, Madeline, was not Humphry’s only other female interest, as there is evidence of a broken engagement and a curious eventual wedding. Humphry was surprised when she became pregnant relatively soon after the wedding, assuming that she had been making arrangements. During her second pregnancy with Parry’s mother Helen, he goes to India to work, where Elizabeth writes to him crossly demanding local descriptions. Although by this time their relationship was virtually over, she was still a powerful correspondent. This book has many strengths, including the clever use of photographs taken by the author of today’s views of relevant places. She is able to give texture to her account of significant events and times in Elizabeth's life with her family’s perspective, and also proves her academic rigour by notes of sources. She also includes a “Select Bibliography listing publications by Elizabeth and Humphry among others. Despite this scholarly approach, this is a very readable book which I genuinely enjoyed, and I recommend it to Elizabeth’s many readers and those interested in her history in the build up to the Second World War.

  8. 4 out of 5

    The Literary Shed

    If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Bowen, The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry is totally unmissable. Drawing on the letters that Bowen and Parry’s grandfather, Humphry House, exchanged from 1933 onwards, the book is a lyrical look at love and infidelity and the secrets that families hold close. The ‘shadowy third’ in question is Madeline, the author’s grandmother, whose presence is noted not just in the letters themselves, but on them, some bearing annotations in her ‘spidery hand’. In a story one really If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Bowen, The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry is totally unmissable. Drawing on the letters that Bowen and Parry’s grandfather, Humphry House, exchanged from 1933 onwards, the book is a lyrical look at love and infidelity and the secrets that families hold close. The ‘shadowy third’ in question is Madeline, the author’s grandmother, whose presence is noted not just in the letters themselves, but on them, some bearing annotations in her ‘spidery hand’. In a story one really couldn’t make up, Parry came across a box, in her uncle John’s attic, containing manila envelopes with the initials HH to EB and EB to HH. Six months later following her uncle’s death, Parry took possession of the box and its truths and so began the journey which led to this book, taking us – and Parry literally – to the places Bowen and House inhabited, Oxford, Cambridge, Norfolk, London of the 1930s, the Calcutta (Kolkata) of the dying years of the Raj, Texas and beyond. Along the way, we’re introducd to a host of characters, some familiar, some not, including literary luminaries like Virginia Woolf and Rosamond Lehmann. This is an extraordinary tale, full of rich detail and historical import, but while House and Bowen’s story is fascinating, the intimate details of their affair mixed in with casual detail about the period, it’s Parry’s writing which weaves it together, interspersing the correspondence between Bowen and House with other research that puts their affair in a greater context and turns the book into something extraordinary. We’re huge fans of literary biography, but The Shadowy Third is more than that: it’s memoir, history, social commentary, bringing a specific period and three people in particular – Bowen, House and Madeline – into focus. We can’t recommend it enough. See: https://www.theliteraryshed.co.uk/rea... This review was originally published as part of the publisher virtual book tour. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lucille

    The Shadowy Third is one for all fans of Elizabeth Bowen's writing, revealing as it does more of her life than a straight biography, through the letters she exchanged with her lover, Humphry House, the grandfather of the writer of this memoir. Essentially, thanks to the letters bequeathed to Julia Parry by her uncle, she shares with the reader the effect Bowen had on her grandfather's marriage to her grandmother. House doesn't come out of it well and this reader's sympathy lies with Madeline Hous The Shadowy Third is one for all fans of Elizabeth Bowen's writing, revealing as it does more of her life than a straight biography, through the letters she exchanged with her lover, Humphry House, the grandfather of the writer of this memoir. Essentially, thanks to the letters bequeathed to Julia Parry by her uncle, she shares with the reader the effect Bowen had on her grandfather's marriage to her grandmother. House doesn't come out of it well and this reader's sympathy lies with Madeline House, navigating her way through this menage a trois. Many thanks to NetGalley and Duckworth Books for the opportunity to read and review this book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jean-Luc

    After reading "The death of the heart"and her Collected short storiesj recently, I was thrilled to discover an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Bowen through Julia Parry's masterful publication. It's a must for anyone familiar with this great 20th century English novelist. Poignant but at same time tactful, The shadowy third offers us an emotional & intimate portrait written with delicacy and much sympathy. Many thanks to netgalley & the editor for allowing me to read this wonderful biography. After reading "The death of the heart"and her Collected short storiesj recently, I was thrilled to discover an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Bowen through Julia Parry's masterful publication. It's a must for anyone familiar with this great 20th century English novelist. Poignant but at same time tactful, The shadowy third offers us an emotional & intimate portrait written with delicacy and much sympathy. Many thanks to netgalley & the editor for allowing me to read this wonderful biography.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sandra

    I found the book fascinating and easy to read. When the author's much loved Uncle dies she inherits a box of correspondence between her grandfather, Humphrey House and novelist, Elizabeth Bowen. He first met her at a dinner in Oxford in 1933 and was instantly smitten. What follows is Julia retracing her grandfather's steps and visiting the places he lived, worked and wrote about in his letters. She felt a lot of sympathy for her grandmother who quite simply was brushed aside while his infatuation I found the book fascinating and easy to read. When the author's much loved Uncle dies she inherits a box of correspondence between her grandfather, Humphrey House and novelist, Elizabeth Bowen. He first met her at a dinner in Oxford in 1933 and was instantly smitten. What follows is Julia retracing her grandfather's steps and visiting the places he lived, worked and wrote about in his letters. She felt a lot of sympathy for her grandmother who quite simply was brushed aside while his infatuation and love for Bowen ran its course. Although Elizabeth herself was married to Alan Cameron, a marriage for security and friendship, rather than love and romance. She was known to have many affairs in her lifetime. I liked that the story also told us more about the author, Julia Parry and her life as well as those from the past and the book is interspersed with photographs which enhance the read. It's made me want to pick up an Elizabeth Bowen novel! A great read which I recommend highly.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lynda

    A wonderful mix of letters, memoir and intriguing relationships. All fans of Elizabeth Bowen should have a read

  13. 4 out of 5

    Phoebe

  14. 4 out of 5

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  15. 4 out of 5

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  16. 5 out of 5

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  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael Waldron

  18. 4 out of 5

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  19. 5 out of 5

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  20. 4 out of 5

    CJ Mason The Fallen Librarian Reviews

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kate: The Quick and the Read

  22. 4 out of 5

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  23. 5 out of 5

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  24. 4 out of 5

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  25. 4 out of 5

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  26. 5 out of 5

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  27. 4 out of 5

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  28. 4 out of 5

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  29. 4 out of 5

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  30. 4 out of 5

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  31. 5 out of 5

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  32. 4 out of 5

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  33. 4 out of 5

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  34. 5 out of 5

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  35. 5 out of 5

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  36. 5 out of 5

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  37. 5 out of 5

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  38. 5 out of 5

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  39. 4 out of 5

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  40. 5 out of 5

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  41. 5 out of 5

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  42. 5 out of 5

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  43. 4 out of 5

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  44. 4 out of 5

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  45. 4 out of 5

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