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Liars and Saints

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With her first novel, Liars and Saints, award-winning author Maile Meloy more than delivers on the promise of her highly acclaimed debut story collection, Half in Love. This novel tells a story of sex and longing, love and loss, and of the deceit that can lie at the heart of family relationships. Set in California, Liars and Saints follows four generations of the Catholic Santerre family from World War II to the present. In a family driven as much by jealousy and propriety as by love, an unspoken tradition of deceit is passed from generation to generation. When tragedy shatters their precarious domestic lives, it takes astonishing courage and compassion to bring them back together. By turns funny and disturbing, irreverent and profound, Liars and Saints is a masterful display of Maile Meloy's prodigious gifts and of her penetrating insight into an extraordinary American family and into the nature of human love.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Maile Meloy

31 books810 followers
Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review), and the award-winning Apothecary trilogy for young readers. She has received the PEN/Malamud Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her new novel for adults, Do Not Become Alarmed, will be published June 6, 2017.

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5 stars
547 (18%)
4 stars
1,102 (37%)
3 stars
961 (32%)
2 stars
268 (9%)
1 star
67 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 377 reviews
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,906 reviews1,232 followers
March 16, 2011
Ever anticipate a book, then sit down and read the first chapter and get a sinking feeling as you realize your expectations are most certainly going to be dashed? Yeah, that's how Liars and Saints made me feel. Although it was already on my to-read list, I bumped it to the top because I intended to read it and then give it to a friend for her birthday. I think I'll be revising that plan to "read and donate to the library."

To be fair, Maile Meloy is a good writer. Liars and Saints is wonderfully written, lyrical even. Its narrative approach is very episodic, as it focuses on a single character during a particular moment or event in his or her life. And I was very impressed with how she integrated the events of the twentieth century into the background of the Santerre family. Liars and Saints reminded me how difficult it is for me to understand what it would have felt like to be an American adult male during the Vietnam War. I'm lucky to have been born much later than that, and to live in Canada, so I've never had the draft looming over me. Watching Henry's reaction to the Vietnam War was probably my favourite part of this book.

So Meloy's writing shares none of the guilt. It is, as seems so often the case in the books I've been reading lately, a problem of plot. Meloy is trying to tell a sweeping generational story that is large in scope yet intimate in scale. She wants to cover four generations, from Teddy and Yvette down to their great-grandson TJ. My edition is 260 pages long. I won't say it's impossible to do justice to such a goal in such a short amount of space, but it is very, very difficult, and Liars and Saints fails to convince me it has succeeded here.

I'm supposed to sympathize with these characters. Their plights, their mistakes and misdeeds, have to tug at my heartstrings. Maybe I'm a monster, but that doesn't happen here, and this is partly owing to the way Meloy has chosen to tell her story. The narrative is scant and condensed. I feel like I'm watching a film of the book. Margot and Clarissa go from being babies to young adults in less than fifty pages, and I never get any time to know them. One minute Clarissa's being punished by nuns, then suddenly a few pages later, she's going to university. I've heard of children growing up too fast, but this is ridiculous.

For some books, jumping over large swathes of time is fine. For generational stories, it's probably a requirement, unless you want to plod through every single detail: "On Tuesday, Olaf woke up. He milked goat. He ate breakfast. He ploughed field." But the depth of field of this book is virtually non-existent. I don't want to call it shallow, because I don't want to give the wrong impression: I think Meloy invokes some very powerful issues, and the way she handles them is interesting. But I don't feel involved in the story, nor am I invested in the characters. It reads more like plot summary, or a very detailed outline of the book.

Also, I'm going to throw this out there: we really need some genre-savvy literary fiction siblings (maybe that's an oxymoron, considering that "literary fiction" is exactly the mainstream answer to the ghettoization of genre). If you are a character in a literary fiction novel and you have a sibling of the opposite sex, do not sleep with them. If you have a niece or nephew, an aunt or an uncle, who is actually your cousin, do not sleep with them. Why? Because in literary fiction, a single make-out section results in a 100% chance of conception. It's, like, the law.

I'm being tongue-in-cheek, and I probably shouldn't be too harsh on Meloy for the constant sexual consequences she rains down upon her characters like disasters in SimCity. This is, after all, fiction (and literary fiction at that), so it's meant, to some extent, to be contrived. Nevertheless, I have to admit that reading a book as contrived as Liars and Saints requires a certain mood, a certain willingness to enter not so much suspension of disbelief as tolerance for the trite and improbable. It's like a soap opera, except without the amnesia or fake dead relatives, and Meloy at least has a handle on some sort of theme.

This review is shorter than what I usually write, and it's not as detailed. There's just not a lot I want to say about Liars and Saints. I didn't like it all that much, but it didn't make me hate it with a passion, so I can't even enjoy writing a snarky, scene-by-scene rebuttal! It's tolerable, maybe even good, but a little bland and boring: there is nothing about it that I feel particularly recommends it above any other book of its kind. In fact, after the first chapter, it reminded me in tone of Fall on Your Knees . And you know, I keep going around saying that Fall on Your Knees is one of my favourite books, but it has been years since I read it, and my memory is very hazy. So I thought, why not buy Fall on Your Knees for my friend's birthday gift? And why not read it forthwith? So that's the best thing I can say about Liars and Saints: it has motivated me to finally re-read a treasured book. That's some kind of praise, I suppose.

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Profile Image for Lew Watts.
Author 3 books31 followers
May 29, 2017
A writer friend suggested I read this, and I'm glad she did. Her question to me was simple: how did Ms Meloy create her characters so effortlessly? Normally, I would shy away from any novel with religious overtones, particularly catholic (it's a long story...), but I entered this one with a set task, concentrating on technique, looking for "show, don't tell" and any subtleties around third person narrative. And do you know what?—I still can't figure out how the characters are made real.
Some reviewers have indeed complained that the characters are not well-formed, but what I think is that they are more like beautiful sketches, painted in a minimalist way with just the right amount of brush strokes. Perhaps this is what gives the novel its haunting beauty as we follow a fractured family tortured by guilt through three (arguably four) generations. And at the end, there is that slightest hint of reconciliation, and the greatest gift of all—a series of unanswered questions, as though the author has said just enough to make the reader think.
Profile Image for Jamie.
961 reviews62 followers
March 6, 2009
What a beautiful book. Meloy writes the most unbelievable sentences; every thought is so well-crafted and simple that it makes you feel like you're breathing the story instead of actually reading a book. I really cannot begin to recommend this book highly enough and I'm not even sure why. Where else can you find a writer who can cover the entire childhood of a character in a single sentence and encapsulate that person's essence? It's BRILLIANT, is what it is, and I'm in awe of her. Absolutely in awe.

This is such a small, perfect book, one that spans over the life of four generations of one family in less than 300 pages without making you feel like you've lost even one ounce of who any one character is deep down. What a phenomenal novel from a phenomenal writer.
Profile Image for Leslie.
47 reviews2 followers
May 9, 2008
I really wanted to give this book another star -- it was a hypnotizing, deeply engrossing read that I kept thinking about long after I finished it -- but for such a lean, sprinting narrative, there were too many operatic twists to sustain credibility. While I welcomed these at the beginning (who isn't riveted by family dysfunction?), the rapid pile-up of surprises made an otherwise moody, contemplative narrative seem more and more convoluted. The final deus ex machina (literally!) pulled it down from 3 to 2 stars. For such a deeply imagined world, I was disappointed to be pushed out of it so frequently.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,860 reviews421 followers
July 16, 2020
‘Liars and Saints’ by Maile Meloy is excellent. The writing is superb, the characters are interesting. However, for me, it also was an intriguing study of a family. I felt like an anthropologist. I frequently feel like an anthropologist in reading domestic fiction about middle-class American families. My American underclass family was totally whack, so domestic fiction about regular normal families either bores me to death or fascinates me. ‘Liars and Saints’ fascinated me.

Four generations of related people are outlined in 260 pages. Each character is briefly on stage in alternate and interlocking appearances. Each appearance smoothly moves a particular branch of the family’s tree downstream. Their lives are so skillfully sketched out in essential strokes readers will have no problem connecting or ‘knowing’ them. Even though I have been an outsider looking in on middle-class people most of my life, I easily recognized analogues in these characters to be found in real life.

The first generation, Yvette and Teddy Santerre, are married during World War II. They are practicing Catholics which is important to them, but stuff happens. Yvette is gorgeous and flirty, and Teddy lives a lot of time out on a Navy ship as a Marine pilot the first months of their marriage. He thinks a lot about Yvette and becomes irrationally jealous. Yvette is busy with their first baby, Margot, and then, Clarissa. Yvette is lonely, but a good Catholic. It takes time, but they work out their marital problems caused by their wartime separation after the war is over. They live in Santa Barbara, California.

Margot is a cold self-contained personality and Clarissa, a much warmer personality, can’t understand her. There are jealous conflicts. When Margot becomes pregnant at age sixteen from her teacher, her mother Yvette takes her to France to have the baby and tells everyone on their return it’s her baby. Clarissa grows up thinking Jamie is her brother. Margot leaves and marries another man, Owen, not the father of her secret child Jamie, and moves away with Owen to Louisiana.

Clarissa becomes involved with Henry and they marry. They have a child of her own, Abby. Margot has miscarriages. Both marriages go through difficulties.

Jamie meets a girl when he is sixteen. They are in love, but Clarissa hates her. She is too much late 1960’s/1970’s, not Catholic or religious. Jamie doesn’t care much about religion, but he does care a lot about Gail. Unfortunately, Clarissa shames him with guilt about sex, and that is the end of that.

Jamie grows up, and......

Gentle reader, I think you get it. If you appreciate domestic fiction, I believe this will entertain you, perhaps shed some enlightenment on your own family. If you are religious, perhaps the book will upset you because as with most real American families, religion tends to be watered down in the following generations in this book. Generally, everyone becomes more knowledgeable about science and evolution except for the first generation. There is a scene of supposed incest between consenting characters, too. Each character goes on a very American journey of self-discovery, Some of the relatives are aimless and sort of drift, others are more purposeful. Some take life easier than other members of the family. I think the point is relations eventually agree to disagree if they somehow hang on to each other’s phone numbers, even if not maintaining very tight relationships in some years.
Profile Image for Amy.
217 reviews175 followers
May 28, 2016
Lairs and Saints is a cleverly written and poetically told novel about three generations of a Catholic family, stretching from World War 2 to the present day.

Oddly for a book that unravels for the reader so many stories about one family, I finished this book feeling distant from all of the characters. Although I was interested in them and enjoyed reading different chapters from different perspectives, I didn't love, like or even hate any of the characters. Some were better realised than others, but in general their personalities felt two-dimensionally flat and often apathetic. When dealing with such themes that are uncomfortable to a lot of people it should have been more important to Maile Meloy to make the characters easier to sympathise with, even if empathy is impossible. That is not to say that they should have been more likeable - just more believable.

Meloy's writing can be rather lovely, with a focus on the minute that brings a glorious sense of the everyday into her books. However, sometimes I felt that the almost complusive attention to the tiny details was at the exclusion of pushing the main story forward. The big moments in the plot were skipped right over and referred to or hinted at rather than openly shown. At some points it felt like the author was almost embarrassed about the topics she was writing about - which in turn made me more uncomfortable about the portrayed situations than I think I would have been otherwise.

None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did. I found it cold and at times quite depressingly despondent, but I still liked it. I would think twice about who I recommended it to, though.
Profile Image for Myfanwy.
Author 13 books175 followers
June 23, 2007
Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints snuck up on me. It's not a brash book. It does not force you to love it. It sits quietly with its hands folded in contemplation and waits for you to find what it is within it that moves you. And when you are moved by this book,you are most certainly moved.

Told in three parts (Part I about temptation--both resisting and giving in to it, Part II about an attempt at redemption through service or sacrifice and Part III about homecoming), Liars and Saints follows the Santerre family through several generations--each of them liars and saints, keeping secrets, making sacrifices, acting out of love. It is not a book that rests on plot but more on moments--little epiphanies that each of the characters experience, revealing to each his special purpose or understanding, providing grace.

In the beginning we see this with fighter-pilot Teddy revealing his understanding in that moment before he is launched. The moments are few--as they are in life--but when they come they bring clarity to the reader as well. There is Yvette's out of body experience, Clarissa's fear that God is calling her to be a nun after she weans her baby, Abby's decision to keep the baby even though it will kill her to do so.

In the end, we have a family, torn apart and cobbled back together, revealing the truth, seeking, once again, redemption and compassion from the only people who matter, each other.
Profile Image for Mary.
620 reviews
August 28, 2017
I had heard so many good things about Maile Meloy. I just finished Meloy's latest, Do Not Become Alarmed, wasn't satisfied, but I wanted to give her another chance and I checked this one out from the library. Well. This one was even worse and I am giving up on this author's work. Without giving too much away, this is a melodramatic story of a really messed up family. One crazy thing happens after another. There were too many "WTF" moments. I had to go back a few times to make sure I wasn't wrong. I wasn't. Meloy's writing is good, her stories hold your interest. But this one was just too much for me. I couldn't get emotionally invested, I didn't like any one, their crises were insane. And I just didn't care.
Profile Image for Kirsta.
39 reviews
March 18, 2008
It's like watching a soap opera. You can get involved in the story line, but actually loose brain cells while reading it. Bubble gum for the mind.
525 reviews12 followers
April 3, 2021
3.5 stars rounded up to 4. Despite a few false notes, this short novel ably and revealingly recounts the life of a family over multiple generations and decades better than many much longer efforts. The author lets the reader fill in some of the contextual gaps, which works just fine for me. Both the prose and the plot are refreshingly straightforward, one might even say predictable. But that doesn't detract from its impact and appeal.
Profile Image for Natalie.
164 reviews12 followers
July 29, 2007
There's a kind of historical survey quality to this book -- it's not very long, yet tracks the members of a single family through 40 or 50 years. So "big" events are trotted out to mark the passage of time -- WWII, Kennedy's assassination, and so forth. Sometimes the narrative feels a little condensed because of that scope, but the real interest of the novel lies in the interplay between individual choices and the larger familial patterns. Around 2/3 of the way through, there were some real surprises that I enjoyed. It's a more complicated book than I thought at first, though not very deep. I read it all in a gulp one afternoon, and enjoyed it very much for what it was.
Profile Image for Nicole Harkin.
Author 2 books21 followers
July 9, 2010
So rushed out to our used bookstore to find the new book by Maile Meloy. Naturally they did not have the book, but they did have her first novel, Liars and Saints. The book is amazing. I read it in 24 hours, 8 of which I sleeping.

My latest favorite quote defining writing is “Writing is answering questions.” I think maybe Meloy is trying to answer the question: What trajectory would the life and family of a woman born in the thirties, married a wonderful, human, and jealous husband traverse? Everyone in the family ends up lying, to protect one another.
One of the last conversations in the book goes:

“Why did I never know this?” she said. “Why do I never know anything?”

“Because you believe what everyone tells you,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s what they want.”

What do you know about your family? Or what do you know about your mother? Since Linda is dead, I think about this a lot. How would I go about imagining her life? She was both a liar and a saint. She got married at 30 and completely changed her life. I discovered pictures of her from her time flying in her desk once. They were small, square, and in color. She was at some ocean, I now imagine to be the coast of France. Linda came upon me looking at and sorting the pictures, and confiscated them. Erica keeps saying she has them, but I have seen no evidence of their continued existence. Did the pictures even exist? Did my mom really exist before me? Do I really exist without her?

I think truth is something that becomes less important, while understanding increases in importance as time goes on. And this book does a great job at showing the reader why that is true. Each chapter is told from the point of view from another member of the family’s point of view. We can see where their feelings might change if they knew the truth, or because they know the truth of something.

Maybe some of you will remember me reviewing The Stone Diaries, a book that chronicled the life of one woman. I wonder if Meloy consciously tried to imitate that book, but Liars and Saints definitely reminded of the book, because the book’s arch takes the form of the life of the mom, Yvette, similarly to The Stone Diaries story arch.

The bottom line: go buy the book. Look, I will send my book to the first person who reads the blog and wants it. In continue to be insanely jealous of Meloy, and all the while hope we will someday cross paths. (p.s. She is from Helena. p.p.s. The title in the UK was Love and Liars and Saints. I wonder which she preferred. I like the UK title more.)
Profile Image for Britta.
87 reviews
December 7, 2007
"Yvette had an over-the-shoulder smile like a pinup girl, and when the smile caught him right, it made it hard for Teddy to breathe. She had a chipped tooth on the right, a tiny chip you only noticed up close, and Teddy loved it. Even more, he loved the smile that forgot the chip was there. He wanted to kiss her teeth when he thought of it."

"Her darling baby brother, the one who had taught her what love was, and he treated her like a prying grown-up, which she guessed she was."

"...you had no right to complain about someone you got all the way to the alter with. You made that choice, even if you were a child when you did it, and the marriage vow was sacred."

"Some nights he drove up into the mountains and camped under stars so dense he could hardly see between them, and that helped too. It didn't matter whether what was out there was chaos or God: it made his own life seem small enough to handle."
Profile Image for Stacy S..
51 reviews19 followers
March 14, 2011
I enjoyed reading this book. The ending was a bit hokey (the christmas dinner part) and not what I would have liked to have seen for this story. It's a book that follows a family through the ages and it really was special in the way that you gain an understanding and compassion for each character. It almost feels like you are also in their family. I know the dysfunction of it all put some people off, but I believe that most families do have quite a bit of dysfunction and so to me, it made the book more real. In the end I felt some happiness for the closeness forming between them all, but throughout the book you're reminded of how difficult life really is- everyone with their own struggles. That made the book a bit heavy and it makes the closeness of the end still feel a little distant. That might not make a lot of sense, but it's how I felt after reading it. I think that why I didn't like the ending.
Profile Image for Judy.
915 reviews
October 26, 2011
This novel is the first work I have read by Maile Meloy, and after reading it, I am looking forward to her short story collection, "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it." The novel follows five tumultuous generations of a 20th century Catholic family. Generally, I dislike multi-generational stories - I feel as if I can never get invested enough in one generation because it's on to the next. However, these generations are intermeshed in interesting ways. The characters are believable and dimensional. There are some flaws - for example, would all of this really happen in one family? The ending is hard for me to swallow, except perhaps in an allegorical way - but this didn't feel like an allegorical novel. Still, I liked it a lot - and hope she will write another one picking up where this one left off.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
99 reviews9 followers
June 17, 2011
I would have rated it a lot higher if it wasn't for a few issues i had with it, mainly: Incest & Religion. I don't have a major problem with all religions, however, Catholicism.. I just don't like it.
And Incest? no no no! Sleeping with your niece, finding out she is your cousin, oh well not so bad then.. Really? Yuk.
Anyway, apart from that, the book was actually very enjoyable, it basically followed three generations of a family over 50 years or so, through all their catholic sin and discovery. Very quick, short read, which is a good thing i suppose, couldn't have coped with much more drama really!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Stacey.
874 reviews162 followers
October 28, 2010
I've read this book twice. When it was first released and then now, 10/10. I have a clearer understanding the second time around. The deep religious undertones struck a chord w/me and took me back to my youth and memories of my own mother.
5 reviews
November 28, 2010
Meloy tells the complex story of the Santerre family over the course of about fifty years. She intricately weaves each character in and out of the story, seamlessly jumping from one family member to the next.
Profile Image for Ayelet Waldman.
Author 30 books40.4k followers
March 3, 2013
I liked this book very much, although as often happens with family sagas, I sort of resented being dragged out of one character's point of view and into her child's, and then into that of the next generation.
25 reviews1 follower
April 20, 2013
The plot goes too far in the direction of a Lifetime movie at points, but the characters are beautifully drawn and her exploration of how different family members experience Catholocism over the course of their lives is wonderful and moving. And it's her first novel! Jaysus.
Profile Image for Kelly.
150 reviews90 followers
March 3, 2013
I thought this book was horrible. I loved the book "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It". This book left me feeling sad and confused.
Profile Image for Kerry O'Grady.
240 reviews
March 11, 2015
Loved the writing style. Love the several generational family story.
Profile Image for Benyakir Horowitz.
Author 5 books48 followers
June 26, 2019
So that break that I wrote about… it didn’t take me nearly as long to get through some things so I’m back to reading (at least temporarily). I’m also looking for comps, so I maybe shouldn’t have read a book from the early 2000s. Oh well, I’ll have to settle with having read a good book.

It is generally (not always true) that early (I’d say first, but this isn’t Meloy’s first) books by authors aren’t as good as later works, and I’ve found it true with David Mitchell (the author of Cloud Atlas), and I think it’s true here. I mean, Carrie was one of King’s best books, so uh, you know, to each their own. I did like Tommyknockers, so maybe that should disqualify me from having opinions. I haven’t read it in a long time, though.

Okay, back to the book. When I first started writing and reading, I was all into long books, like 600+ page books, and I thought the 80-110k word limit for novels was a bit silly. But now I see the wisdom of it for a lot of people. It asks people to get rid of unnecessary words and concentrate on what really is their story.

That wasn’t back to the book. This will be. There is no protagonist, and I think that might one of the (or the most) important characteristic of the author. It’s the story of a postwar (the war being the WWII) family living in California. It covers three generations, my grandparents’ generation, my parents generation, my older brothers’ generation and a little bit of mine, so the silent (or greatest), baby boomers, gen X and millennials. They all have their foibles and strengths. This is one of the times where I don’t have much to say, but I don’t think that’s anything bad. It was well written, and all the characters have their flaws and strengths. They feel fleshed out (except for maybe Margot and Owen, but I suspect that may be for a reason). I think you could read deeply into the book, but I didn’t think it was that type of book. Don’t get me wrong, but it’s not something that asks us to think too deeply, just read the book and enjoy the story it has to tell. I guess he one question it would be asking is “what’s the purpose of life?” And every character answers that differently, from religious Catholic to practical Catholic, agnostic and atheist.
Profile Image for Amy.
912 reviews55 followers
February 27, 2018
A multi-generational story of a family that seems pretty dysfunctional, but in the normal way that all families seem to look. Yvette and Teddy are young Catholics that marry and deal with him fighting in Korea and the birth of two daughters, then much a later a son. The daughters, Margot and Clarissa have turmoil with their own love lives and a distance between them as sisters. They struggle with their husbands or childlessness. As Jamie, the son, grows up a bit, some family secrets come to light, and new ones are created.
Profile Image for Elliot Ratzman.
516 reviews66 followers
October 21, 2021
I loved this book! Each of these short chapters could just about stand alone as fantastic short stories, each one packing a punch. A narrative of intergenerational change which, though unlike the Biblical Marquez is still a very Catholic work—not in form as much as in the content where American Catholicism’s best faces makes numerous appearances. It follows the fortunes of a couple in California, navigating post-war life, their children thickening the plot in unexpected ways for the next forty years in sweetness, bitterness, and finally the grace of accepting the brokenness of people, of families, of relationships. The last lines of each chapter are strong beats. “He left the Reserves and took his job at North American again, and they settled into a life together that felt like a truce.” (c. 1) “Jaime couldn’t avoid being present; it was being happy he couldn’t do.” (c. 26) “He wrapped his arms around her, and they walked into the dining room like a two-headed beast.” (c. 43) Mic drop.
Profile Image for hayden.
1,063 reviews733 followers
January 31, 2018
this reminded me a lot of michael cunningham’s flesh and blood in that it follows a family through multiple generations. unlike cunningham’s book, though, this one zips by with sparse language. were there not another book, i would wish this one were longer. loved it!
763 reviews9 followers
August 11, 2021
A slow start to the first half of this book but it improved in the second half. A good look at the impact of keeping secrets in families.
21 reviews
January 21, 2018
An easy read but the family dynamics felt a little contrived.
Profile Image for Kay.
163 reviews
May 17, 2020
3.5 Could have done without the incest.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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