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A Novel

Written by Bonnie MarsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bonnie Marson


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41667-4
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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It seems that the legendary composer Franz Schubert is alive—well, sort of—in the twenty-first century: His soul has taken up residence in the body of Brooklyn lawyer Liza Durbin. Even more astonishing, so has his prodigious gift. A mediocre pianist at best as a child, Liza can suddenly pound out concertos and compose masterly music out of the blue. But how can a brilliant male Austrian composer from the nineteenth century coexist in the everyday life of a modern American woman? And how can Liza explain what’s happened to her without everyone thinking she’s gone off the deep end?

Fortunately, the evidence is tangible, and Liza is soon brought into the esteemed halls of Juilliard under the tutelage of the revered—and feared—Greta Pretsky, a humorless woman whose only interest in Liza is her channeling of Schubert. Greta’s greedy for her next big star, and the entire New York City press is whispering of Liza’s brilliance as the public awaits her debut at Carnegie Hall. Even Liza’s boyfriend, Patrick, seems more in love with her than ever.

Yet as Liza yields to Franz’s great passion, her own life and identity threaten to elude her. Why was she chosen as the vessel for this musical genius—and when, if ever, will he leave? Their entwined souls follow a path of ecstasy, peril, and surprise as they search for the final, liberating truth.

A strikingly original novel, Sleeping with Schubert plays on years of speculation regarding Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” Bonnie Marson’s extraordinary imagination supposes that Schubert cannot truly die until the mystery is solved—even if it means being resurrected in the body of a deceptively ordinary woman. Filled with drama and humor, this irresistible novel explores love, genius, and identity in ways that will engage and amaze readers.

From the Hardcover edition.



The day I became a genius I locked the keys in the car with the motor running. This minor delay served its cosmic purpose, I suppose, delivering me right on time for my transformation at the spiritual launch site-women's shoes at Nordstrom.

Christmas in southern California satisfies about as well as chocolate mousse with Cool Whip. Holiday flourishes covered every Nordstrom surface that day, but the sun shone warmly, Santa's suit had sweat stains, and the perfect snow never melted.

Dad and I had a tradition of shopping for Mom together. Knowing her so well, we felt we could combine our instincts to pick a gift she might not loathe. Fat chance.

I found a rose-colored satin luxury that anyone would love. Dad looked at it skeptically, scratching his bushy gray hair.

"How much?"

"Hundred and eighty." I said it casually, like I always spend that much on bathrobes.

"Dollars? A hundred and eighty dollars? I could buy a house for that!" His face twisted with horror, which our poor saleslady took seriously. She flustered at us apologetically.

"Really, miss, it looks fine to me," he said. "Wrap it, please. Chanukah paper, if you have it."

The saleslady stared blankly back at him.

Ever since moving from New York to San Diego, my father's jokes zoomed over the heads of store clerks, waiters, and ticket takers. He ached for the verbal volleyball you could pick up on any street corner in the Bronx. I had moved away only as far as Brooklyn, and worked as a lawyer in Manhattan. In spare moments, I fantasized about more creative pursuits and a possible move to palm-tree country. But if ever I were tempted to live in California, that saleslady's blank stare would be a strong deterrent.

We headed toward the dresses, looking for I don't know what. Something for my sister, something for Aunt Frieda. One by one, commission-driven "sales associates" assaulted us with helpfulness. After a dozen May I help yous, I grabbed the first dress in reach and asked a saleslady for a dressing room. This made me safe. Nordstrom associates are connected by

hidden antennae and territorial threats that keep the shopper safe from other sales associates once an alliance is made. My boyfriend should be so monogamous.

Piano music had been drifting around in my head since we arrived. The volume rose and fell as we wandered around the store. When we drew close to the source, the melodies hardened and cracked like dried clay.

A highly polished baby grand sat on the highly polished marble floor and was played by a highly polished pianist. His honey-colored hair was swept away from his scarily perfect face. Turquoise-blue contacts looked down a surgically carved nose toward a beauty-queen smile with teeth as white as white.

He played the Christmas standards with showy finesse, dramatizing Rudolph and trivializing the Wise Men. His head swayed gracefully with the music, mimicking sincerity. Occasionally, he'd look up to bless us with a smirk and an eyebrow shrug, assuring us he was too good for this banal dreck the store made him play. If only he could show us his real stuff.

Normally, I'd accept it all as store atmosphere, but his music was getting on my nerves. Every time I got near him, my head throbbed and sweat slid down my neck. His know-it-all look enraged me and I fought not to scream when he Muzaked "Ave Maria."

I tried to walk away but his playing attracted me like a spectator to an Amtrak wreck. Occasional missed notes hit my body like flying glass. I outplayed him in my head, summoning the music's original beauty. When he left for his break, I calmly took his place on the piano bench and began to play.

Through all my grade-school piano lessons I'd only gotten good enough to recognize the skill in others. Suddenly I became an other.

I was not like a lifeless puppet, nor a remote-control robot. All the movement came from inside. Muscles flexed, fingers moved, and my mind was filled with a comprehension I had no right to possess. I vibrated like a tuning fork as the music flowed outward. Visions slid in and out of focus. My brain engaged in a psychic tug-of-war with an unseen opponent.

It was a lovely piece I played, one I'm sure I never heard before but which felt like an old friend. The melody started slowly and I marveled at the grace in my hands. My manicured fingertips roamed the keyboard at will, gathering up its secrets and pouring them out in exquisite form. The tempo picked up and my heart raced to meet it. I watched my fingers hurling, twisting, and dancing wildly, amazed they didn't pretzel up on me. Then came a light and lilting part pulling on strands of melody remembered from the beginning. The ending left me tear-drenched.

When I stopped, the world of Nordstrom fell in on me again. The response to my music was, like, totally Californian. Most of the shoppers shopped on, unscathed by a miracle.

Only a small crowd took notice. They gathered around with enthusiastic words and even requested autographs. An elegant woman in her forties, patrician to her toes, wept into a linen hanky. A gray-haired couple held tightly to each other and offered comments in a language I didn't recognize.

"Hey, lady, how'd you do that?" I turned to see an adolescent boy in trendy, cool-kid clothes. He stared at me, stunned, as if he'd just discovered fire.

"I don't know," I answered. Then the world grew dark, the ocean rushed through my ears, and I gratefully passed out.


Do people normally dream when they faint? It was the first faint of my life, so I'm no expert. But when Dad's voice roused me a minute later, I had already had a life-changing experience.

My body housed two lives. To protect my sanity I denied it many times but, as I look back, it was obvious from the start. Someone else, some person who possessed more passion than I ever felt, had crawled into my soul with me. Like lovers sharing a bed, yanking at the covers, brushing up and pulling away, we were separate but together and utterly unready for each other.

"Liza, honey, are you okay?" My father helped me sit up as Nordstrom elves scurried to find help. The small throng around me asked one another the usual questions.

"I'm fine, Dad. I just want to go home."

My own sense of shock was augmented by strange responses to the ordinary details of the surroundings. Everything smelled wrong and glaring lights made me throw an arm across my eyes. I gasped at the sight of a woman in shorts.

"Someone's gone for a doctor, Liza. Let's just wait a minute." Then Dad's voice changed from concern to astonishment. "Honey, where on earth did you learn to play like that?"

A stylish store official in a dark business dress broke through the crowd with a medic in tow. Despite my protests, the brusque young man looked in my eyes, felt my pulse, and checked for signs of imminent demise. His quick, assured hands felt cool against my clammy skin. Much as he tried, he couldn't find anything horribly wrong and suggested I go home and take it easy for the rest of the day. If only he knew.

The curious bystanders were pretty much losing interest by then, except for an elderly, tweed-covered gent who chased after me and my father as we hurried toward the exit. He could barely catch his breath when he finally spoke: "Excuse me, miss, but that was remarkable. Really remarkable. Wherever have you been keeping yourself? Where may I hear you perform again?"

Perform a-gayne, was how he said it. He was American, but with that Continental accent you hear only in old movies.

"I don't perform anywhere." I was more frightened than flattered.

"Then where do you study? Can't I hear you again?" He looked hopeful, and actually removed his fedora as a show of respect.

"I'm sorry, sir, I really have to go." My response deflated him. "I'm glad you liked that number, though."

Dad held onto my elbow as we turned to go.

"That number?" The stranger was following us out the door. I wanted to disappear, but my Number One Fan would not be left behind. "Miss, don't you know what you've achieved? At least take my card and promise you'll call."

"I can't promise that"-I looked at the card-"Dr. Sturtz. I'm not from here, anyway. But I'll keep your card."

He seemed bereft, not ready to give up.

"Where do you live, my dear?"


"May I at least know your name?"

"Liza. Liza Durbin."

Dad was kind while we drove home, allowing me to sit beside him without a word. He didn't ask his many questions, but I was asking myself the same ones anyway, plus some extras. Like why the sight of the parking lot startled me or how come I felt carsick for the first time since childhood. Just the feel of the synthetic seat covers made me squirm.

As we turned into the driveway of my parents' perfectly average suburban home, I realized how un-average I felt. (Hey, lady, how'd you do that? Sorry, kid, you must mean someone else. You must.) Only the familiarity of my parents' home kept me semi-sane and earthbound. I sank into an easy chair that was soft and overstuffed, like all their furniture. I scanned the family photos, the smiling faces on every wall and table. I recognized all of them. Would they still know me?

My mother greeted us in a black leotard and knee-length tights. She'd obviously just taught her yoga class. I marveled at her taut, sixty-year-old body, as if I hadn't seen it countless times before.

"What are you staring at?" she asked me.

"Nothing, Mom. You look good, that's all."

She eyed me suspiciously. "Twenty years of yoga will do that for you," she said. "I keep telling you that."

In response to my stubborn silence, Mom once again provided details on the many benefits of yoga and how I could easily take classes in Brooklyn. But I was preoccupied, and her conversational train must have taken a turn that I didn't notice. Suddenly she was asking me a question that started with "When?"

"Soon, Mom." It seemed like a good guess. "I'll start again soon."

Mom sized me up through slitted eyes. Uh-oh.

"All right." It was the I'm-your-mother, there's-no-escape voice. "What's going on? You look awful and you haven't said a word."

Just what kind of spectacle was Mom capable of making out of my amazing feat? When I was small, she'd call the neighbors any time I blew a saliva bubble or counted to one.

"Liza had a little fainting spell in Nordstrom's, Louise," Dad volunteered.

"A little fainting spell? What's little about fainting?" My mother sprang into panic mode, instinctively hitting on food. "Did you eat, darling? Maybe you were hypoglycemic."

"I'm not hungry, Mom."

"Did you go to urgent care? Have you seen a doctor?"

"There was a doctor in the store, Louise. Everything's fine. She just needs to rest."

"I want to hear everything," she said. "I'll make you some chamomile tea, and we'll have something to eat."

No point in arguing. Once my mother has opened the fridge, no mouth goes unfilled. We sat down for a three-course snack. I sensed a spice was missing from Mom's chicken salad, but couldn't say what it was. The fruit salad, though, tasted like ambrosia. As my mother served scoops of cookie-dough ice cream, my father took a deep breath and said, "Louise, something else happened in the store today."

I listened without comment to Dad's tale about the wackoid woman in Nordstrom who commandeered the piano and played like a genius. How could this story be about me?

"It was the damnedest thing, Louise. She played so beautifully, like a Rubinstein or a Perlman." Dear Dad's knowledge of classical music didn't extend beyond "Streets of Laredo," but his praise was heartfelt. "I tell you, this thing came from nowhere, a total shock."

Mom had listened intently, staring at me, leaning toward me, while Dad talked. When he finished, she was silent only a moment before she turned on my father.

"Shocked? Our daughter does something brilliant and you're shocked? What's wrong with you?"

Her attention flashed back to me. Her deep brown eyes doubled in size, and her pumpkin-bright hair bristled.

"You were always the best in your piano recitals, Liza. Isn't that right, Max?" No reply. "Everyone said you were the best, darling, and you were. They weren't just saying that."

I lowered my eyes and watched my ice cream melting, little blobs of cookie dough bobbing in the goo. This seemed fascinating to me, and far safer than the conversation in the room.

"Louise," Dad said, settling a hand on Mom's slim forearm, "I don't think you understand."

"I understand that she's good at many things. Didn't she do great in college, and in law school? And she could always draw, too. Why couldn't she be a pianist if she works at it?"

I saw no hope. She would only understand through demonstration. I eyed the black lacquer upright piano waiting for me in their living room, the one they bought on credit twenty-odd years ago. I had insulted it with "Chopsticks," tortured it with scales, and embarrassed it with the Young

Pianists' Beethoven, the edited version. This time I thought I might make it proud.

Mom and Dad followed me into the living room and I sat at the creaky piano bench. Suddenly, the keys scared me silly. Can a miracle strike twice? Most of me wanted to run away, but my hands dove for the keyboard. They landed in starting position and immediately took flight. The first notes were familiar, instantly linked with the words my mother used to sing to me: This IS the sym-pho-NEE, that Schu-bert-wrote-but-ne-ver FIN-nished.

Brilliantly played, with lofty emotion. How'd I do that?

Filled with belief in the music, I moved on through thrilling passages. Torrents of music were followed by sweet pauses. Delicate notes were embroidered into complex patterns. I could hear other instruments that should have been playing: the strings, horns, percussion. I felt the notes as if I'd played them before. Then it changed. Suddenly I was playing something original. I roamed the keyboard, leaving footprints in fresh snow. Improvising, playing with the possibilities. It ended grandly.

Mom got it.

When I was young, I was terrified of the dark. Gradually, the night ghosts turned into explainable shadows and ignorable sounds. No more fears, until that night. A ferocious child-again dread shocked my adult senses. Wild dreams chased me around the bedroom. Loud music yanked me from my sleep. I tossed violently in my sheets, desperately trying to shake off reality. It was reality, after all, that set this apart from childhood fears.

From the Hardcover edition.
Bonnie Marson|Author Q&A

About Bonnie Marson

Bonnie Marson - Sleeping with Schubert
BONNIE MARSON is an artist who has worked in many media including painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, and mosaics. She has sold her work in galleries and to collectors around the country. Sleeping with Schubert Film rights have been acquired by Paramount Pictures. The author lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband, Steve Sadler.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

On Schubert, Spirits, and Singing in the Shower: A Conversation with Bonnie Marson

Q:Sleeping with Schubert touches on a common human fantasy: to be something larger than we really are or discover talent that we never knew we had. Would you consider this a universal part of the human condition?

Bonnie Marson:
Aren't we all inspired by other people’s gifts? We think, If only I could play like him, or dance like her, or think like someone else. Personally, I sing like a goddess in the shower but sound like a toad anywhere else–I'm pretty sure other people do that, too. Sleeping with Schubert takes this common fantasy out of the shower and into a life. It asks what would happen if, in the middle of your normal life, your wildest dream came true. And I hope it makes the point that, in real life, ordinary people have greatness in them.

Q:Is your sudden success as a writer (i.e., quickly selling your first novel and optioning the movie rights) a parallel to Liza’s success as a pianist?

:With the major exception that I’m not inhabited by genius, yes, there are parallels. Liza Durbin becomes inhabited by Franz Schubert and finds herself thrust into the classical music world, studying with a top pianist at Juilliard, playing at Carnegie Hall, recording for Sony Classical, touring the world, being a celebrity. I suddenly find myself at high levels in the literary world, allied with a top editor, agent, publisher, movie producer– none of which I dreamed of even a couple of years ago. A friend commented that I’d been writing my future, which has a morsel of truth in it. The book, of course, centers on the whole genius/inhabitation aspect. I’m still waiting for that. The thing I really have in common with Liza–which anyone can experience–is the adventure of opening up to something new.

Q:Do you think that we all have hidden talents that are dormant only because we haven’t properly tapped into them?

:My mother was in her seventies when she took her first drawing class. She moved practically overnight from stick figures to making really fine drawings. I think we all have talents that are waiting to bloom–talent that might be kept at bay by lack of confidence, self-image, logistics, or other people’s opinions. Even people who know they have a talent often don’t follow through. Imagine all the inventions that never saw daylight, manuscripts buried in file cabinets, paintings abandoned in attics, all kinds of brilliant endeavors that people gave up on. Sometimes all that’s missing is a little encouragement. I decided to write a book because a friend suggested that I finish an abandoned short story. In that moment, I forgot to be afraid and opened up to my own “unfinished” business.

Q: Describe the talk you give about “innocent optimism” and the response you get from those who come to hear you speak. Have you heard back from people you've inspired to release their own "inner Schubert”?

:My talk is called “The Power of Innocent Optimism–How I Wrote a Novel, Sold It and Got a Movie Deal Because I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t.” The idea is to motivate people to try new things, explore an interest, unleash the creative tiger within. I ask people to imagine themselves doing something totally different, which invariably excites them. They want to take dance lessons or learn to paint or write a book or visit Machu Picchu. One seventy-five-year-old businessman said he’d always wanted to play the tuba. Another woman saw herself as a rabbi; she looked into it when she got home and learned there was a rabbinical school across the street from her house. People almost always think of something doable–no astronaut fantasies or Olympic gold–and it’s usually related to their “unfinished” sides. The scientists want to be artists, business types want to do good deeds, and so on. I encourage people to let themselves be beginners again, to open themselves to surprise and possibility. They grab at the notion, as if they’ve been waiting for permission. I've gotten e-mails from people who went home and started new ventures right away.

Q:What is your secret fantasy talent?

:Remember the part about singing in the shower?

Q:Do you play the piano?

:Technically, yes. Beautifully, only in my dreams. I don’t play often, but I can’t imagine my home without a piano. It’s like this island of creative potential in the middle of my living room. Anyone might sit down and make gorgeous music at any moment. Hey, Schubert could show up.

Q:Tell us about your page-a-day writing method.

:Soon after I started writing the book, I found a rhythm that fit. I would think all day about my next page, and then pour it out on the keyboard at night. Sometimes I wrote a little more or less, but one page was the average. At that pace, I always stayed close to my characters and their story, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed.

Q:Where did you come up with the premise for Sleeping with Schubert?

:It was the notion of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” The title was like an open door. I walked right in.

Q:How did you manage to make Liza’s improbable predicament so believable?

:Everything in her life is normal except for this one detail, which happens to be
huge. I tried to keep everything else true to that normalcy, imagining the feelings, reactions, and relationships in that circumstance.

Q:After Schubert’s “invasion,” Liza talks about longing for normalcy. Yet, one has to wonder if she doesn’t secretly enjoy her new life. Do you think Liza is happier before or after the transformation?

:She opened up an unexplored side of herself, which enriched her. Every aspect of life has its dark and light sides, so I expect Liza will still have her ups and downs. Overall, though, she probably acquired a greater capacity for happiness.

Q:Do you believe that it is possible to become “inhabited” by another spirit?

:I wrote a piece of fiction, and I can’t say I've seen actual evidence of inhabitation. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Certainly people influence each other in spiritual as well as physical ways. Does it transcend time and space? It’s a nice thought.

Q:Of all the classical composers, why Schubert?

In addition to “Unfinished Symphony” mystery, I felt drawn to Schubert for a more personal, almost subliminal, reason. When I was growing up, my mother always sang around the house. One of the tunes she loved was set to these words: “This is the symphony that Schubert wrote but never finished . . .” (And, yes, Liza Durbin’s mother happens to know that same song.) Anyway, you know how a song gets stuck in your head? Usually it’s “Stairway to Heaven” or the Oscar Meyer song. I guess I've had Schubert stuck in my head since childhood. Thank goodness for a mother with good taste.

Q:Were you already well versed in Schubert when you started writing the book?

BM:No, I could recognize some of his music, but I was certainly no expert on Schubert. Remember, this started out as a short story, so I didn’t need to know too much at first. As it grew into a book, I researched Schubert’s life and music and found a thousand reasons to love him. I learned that he died at thirty-one, the same age, coincidentally, that Liza was in my book. His early death, his prolific writing, his illness, the way his music changed with his circumstances — all of it had an impact on the story. Also, I listened to Schubert as I wrote, including lots of wonderful music I’d never heard. That was a way to feel close to him. And, of course, there’s the whole “unfinished” concept, which attracted me in the first place. Schubert died young, so people tend to think of his life as unfinished. Really, though, does anyone really finish? Would you even want to finish everything on your life’s to-do list? When you finish things, you have a feeling of satisfaction, which is great, but the excitement, the surprise and the passion in life lie in the unfinished zone. Unfinished is what gets you up in the morning, it’s what thrills your spirit.

Q: Why do you think people seem to be so moved by your story and by Liza's?

:People draw hope for their own possibilities. It encourages them to rethink their dormant talents, postponed dreams, or the stunning ideas they’ve been dying to share. Maybe they find that last bit of courage that helps them get started. If someone else can do it, why not them?

Q:Do you still paint and draw? How do you relate visual arts to writing?

:I don’t have much time to paint or draw these days. Making art requires huge creative focus and energy, which I'm now devoting to books. Fortunately, writing is just as creative and exciting for me. As I wrote Sleeping with Schubert, I gradually saw clear connections between writing and visual art. Paintings and novels need the same elements for success. They both require the light and the dark, the bold and subtle, rough and smooth, and in the end it must come into balance somehow. When you look at a painting, you can see fairly quickly if it works. A book is so horizontal that it takes awhile to see it, but it ultimately should come into the same kind of balance. It’s an aesthetic symmetry.

Q.How has the classical music world responded to Sleeping with Schubert?

: Because I'm not an expert and the book was written for a general audience, I was nervous about how serious musicians would respond. As it turns out, they're wild for the book. They’ve given it great reviews and invited me to participate in symphony events, concerts, and fundraisers. I incorporate music into book signings whenever possible (a soprano to sing Ave Maria, for example), and I constantly hear from readers who feel inspired to reconnect with their musical backgrounds. Also, many people buy the Sony Classical Sleeping with Schubert music CD to listen to as they read. Quite a few have told me it’s the first classical music they’ve owned, and they're often amazed at how much it moves them. So, maybe more people will get to know and love Schubert. Can’t ask for better than that.



“Combining just the right amounts of love, lunacy, and lyricism, Bonnie Marson has given us an enchanting tale about genius and relationships sparked by the improbable convergence of a dead composer and a Brooklyn lawyer. This book is as original as they come. You will be captivated.”
—Tawni O’Dell, author of Backroads

“A charmed and charming novel—an imaginative joy ride with a gifted and generous spirit.”
—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love

“From the opening lines, Sleeping with Schubert is a hilarious, whimsical romp through the looking glass of a great musical mystery. The writing snaps, crackles, and pops with humor as Bonnie Marson makes Schubert a sexy, happening kind of guy who gives new meaning to our dreaming the impossible.”
—Jonis Agee, author of The Weight of Dreams

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How did Liza and Franz’s trans-dimensional relationship evolve from their meeting at Nordstrom to their parting?

2. What is the nature of genius? (How could Mozart write music at age five that we still listen to? Why didn’t Picasso draw like a child until he grew old and chose to draw like a child?) Is it genetics, spirit, or something else?

3. What was Franz to Liza–gift, responsibility, burden, invader, guardian angel?

4. How would this story be different if Franz had inhabited a man?

5. What would Liza’s experience have been like without her family, friends, and a small inheritance to sustain her?

6. Would you like to be inhabited by somebody famous? If yes, by whom? Do you believe in such possibilities?

7. Think about the reactions of Liza’s friends/family/colleagues when they learned the truth. How would you respond if someone close to you made a similar claim?

8. Liza’s best friend was a man. How do opposite-sex friendships compare to same-sex best friends?

9. How does Franz ultimately help or hurt Liza’s relationship with Patrick and with friends and other family members?

10. Franz had a special fondness for Danny. How did they affect each other?

11. What will Liza be doing five years post-Franz? How about Danny, Mikki, Patrick, Cassie, Mom, Dad, Greta and the rest? Did life go back to normal? Is it better or worse?

12. Were you familiar with Franz Schubert’s music before reading the book? Can you imagine the music played in the end?

13. What does music add to your life? If it were taken out of your life–in movies, at home, in elevators, cars, and the supermarket–how would you change?

14. Which scenes from Sleeping with Schubert will stay with you?

15. What is your hidden, or yet-to-be-explored talent?

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