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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the celebrated author of The English Patient and Anil's Ghost comes a remarkable, intimate novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time. In the 1970s in Northern California a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is shattered by an incident of violence that sets fire to the rest of their lives. Divisadero takes us from San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada's casinos and eventually to the landscape of southern France. As the narrative moves back and forth through time and place, we find each of the characters trying to find some foothold in a present shadowed by the past.

Excerpt

From Divisadero

By our grandfather’s cabin, on the high ridge, opposite a slope of buckeye trees, Claire sits on her horse, wrapped in a thick blanket. She has camped all night and lit a fire in the hearth of that small structure our ancestor built more than a generation ago, and which he lived in like a hermit or some creature, when he first came to this country. He was a self-sufficient bachelor who eventually owned all the land he looked down onto. He married lackadaisically when he was forty, had one son, and left him this farm along the Petaluma road.

Claire moves slowly on the ridge above the two valleys full of morning mist. The coast is to her left. On her right is the journey to Sacramento and the delta towns such as Rio Vista with its populations left over from the Gold Rush.

She persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees. She has been smelling smoke for the last twenty minutes, and, on the outskirts of Glen Ellen, she sees the town bar on fire —the local arsonist has struck early, when certain it would be empty. She watches from a distance without dismounting. The horse, Territorial, seldom allows a remount; in this he can be fooled only once a day. The two of them, rider and animal, don’t fully trust each other, although the horse is my sister Claire’s closest ally. She will use every trick not in the book to stop his rearing and bucking. She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute. When Claire is on a horse she loses her limp and is in charge of the universe, a centaur. Someday she will meet and marry a centaur.

The fire takes an hour to burn down. The Glen Ellen Bar has always been the location of fights, and even now she can see scuffles starting up on the streets, perhaps to honour the landmark. She sidles the animal against the slippery red wood of a madrone bush and eats its berries, then rides down into the town, past the fire. Close by, as she passes, she can hear the last beams collapsing like a roll of thunder, and she steers the horse away from the sound.

On the way home she passes vineyards with their prehistoric-looking heat blowers that keep air moving so the vines don’t freeze. Ten years earlier, in her youth, smudge pots burned all night to keep the air warm.


Most mornings we used to come into the dark kitchen and silently cut thick slices of cheese for ourselves. My father drinks a cup of red wine. Then we walk to the barn. Coop is already there, raking the soiled straw, and soon we are milking the cows, our heads resting against their flanks. A father, his two eleven-year-old daughters, and Coop the hired hand, a few years older than us. No one has talked yet, there’s just been the noise of pails or gates swinging open.

Coop in those days spoke sparingly, in a low-pitched monologue to himself, as if language was uncertain. Essentially he was clarifying what he saw—the light in the barn, where to climb the approaching fence, which chicken to cordon off, capture, and tuck under his arm. Claire and I listened whenever we could. Coop was an open soul in those days. We realized his taciturn manner was not a wish for separateness but a tentativeness about words. He was adept in the physical world where he protected us. But in the world of language he was our student.

At that time, as sisters, we were mostly on our own. Our father had brought us up single-handed and was too busy to be conscious of intricacies. He was satisfied when we worked at our chores and easily belligerent when it became difficult to find us. Since the death of our mother it was Coop who listened to us complain and worry, and he allowed us the stage when he thought we wished for it. Our father gazed right through Coop. He was training him as a farmer and nothing else. What Coop read, however, were books about gold camps and gold mines in the California northeast, about those who had risked everything at a river bend on a left turn and so discovered a fortune. By the second half of the twentieth century he was, of course, a hundred years too late, but he knew there were still outcrops of gold, in rivers, under the bunch grass, or in the pine sierras.

*

Now and then our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you were able to catch him in that no-man’s-land between tiredness and sleep, when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him on the old covered sofa, and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness—too much sun perhaps, or too hard a day’s work.

Claire would also be there sometimes, if she did not want to be left out, or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep. As if inhaling the flesh of an adult was a sin and also a glory, a right in any case. To do such a thing during daylight would have been unthinkable, he’d have pushed us aside. He was not a modern parent, he had been raised with a few male rules, and he no longer had a wife to qualify or compromise his beliefs. So you had to catch him in that twilight state, when he had ceded control on the tartan sofa, his girls enclosed, one in each of his arms. I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signalled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place. And then I too would sleep, descending into the layer that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michael Ondaatje|Author Q&A

About Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje - Divisadero

Photo © Linda Spalding

Michael Ondaatje is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

Q: You’ve said that you begin a book with a single image and then see where it leads you. For The English Patient it was a plane crash. What was your image for Divisadero?

A: Well I was teaching at Stanford and was living north of San Francisco at the time. And I was working on a farm. Well, I mean I had a workspace that a friend gave me on her farm.  And I’d heard this story about this horse going wild in a barn, and that was what began the book. That was the first scene I wrote, and I remember in this scene there was just one woman, being attacked by a horse. And that began the book. And then the landscape around the place that I was writing kind of became a part of the book, and so that area around Petaluma, which is about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, became a central landscape.


Q: How long did it take you to do the research for the book in Petaluma?

A: Well I didn’t really do any research. It was a book I kind of started writing there and it was just a story that I gradually invented. And I had a landscape around me. There was no real research into the habits of any kind of farm. It just became part of the story. It was just a landscape where the invented characters of Coop, and Claire, and Anna, lived. So I was writing those sequences for about 2 1/2 years. And then I would go back there every January, February and March and so that was a kind of confident landscape where I wrote the book, though I continued re-writing it when I was back in Canada.

And then gradually the story of France started to come into it and I thought my God, what is this? Is this another book, or the same book? And then I realized it was the same book because of Anna’s career later in life. And then gradually I decided had to go to France to find a landscape for the writer, Lucien Segura, so I went there. I often find I need a very specific landscape to put my imaginary toes in, and I came across this house in town near Auch, near a small town named Demu, and it seemed the right place for this writer. And I was there very briefly for the first time–about 15 minutes–and when I came back to Canada that world–that house, that garden and the small lake there–sort of took over. And so the whole French section began and so it became a kind of partner to the California section of the book.


Q: The book starts with 3 young people and takes them from their early teen years until middle age and you see what happens to them. The story in France also involves people as they get older, and how they completely change through events that shape them. Do you think people can really walk away from an earlier life and start a brand new one?

A: I think they do. I think all of us do. We all, hopefully, well maybe not hopefully, reinvent ourselves at certain points in our life. I mean I know when I first came to Canada at the age of 18 or 19, there was a kind of reinvention. I was coming to a new country. I was studying English literature, which was a whole new world for me, and I was in a new place, with a new life. I think I did change a great deal, I kind of I evolved. It’s the way Gertrude Stein talks about being an American and coming to France and, you know, France remade her. I think that happened to me in Canada. And I think that the idea of the family is quite interesting. We think of a family as a kind of a very nuclear thing, and the family in my book is not a nuclear family. It’s kind of made up of various other families in some odd way. But we live with a family for the first 15, 16 years of our lives and then, often we scatter. We don’t see each other or one becomes a doctor, one becomes something else. And that is quite a bizarre structure in our lives: that we are this nuclear thing and then we splinter out into other worlds. So I was very interested in that as a kind of form. What would happen, how connected are we later in life.


Q: How long do your characters stay with you when you finish the book and do you imagine what happens to them beyond the book?

A: Well I tend to try and keep a kind of open door at the end of my books so that people don’t get closed off, they don’t get locked into a career or a type or a final state. For example, I see Claire’s continuing a life with or without Coop, or Anna continuing to have a life with or without Rafael. I discover people as I write the book and I certainly don’t want to cut them off in the end into a kind static state, so I really do imagine their lives beyond the books. I imagine their lives also during the book when they’re offstage, as it were.


Q: Well that makes sense, because that’s more like real life anyway.

A: Yes exactly, like when we have friends, these people, who in 2 years they come back as a politician, and we ask ourselves how the hell did they do that?


Q: You write about Lucien, the writer, and say “for most of his life he’d been regarded as a solitary, in spite the gregarious situation of his family, he’d lived mostly an imaginary life” and that “his fictional character Claudile had kept him company over difficult times.” Is that the case for you, or can you have a social life in the middle of the book?

A: Well, I think there are obviously grains of myself in Anna, and Coop, in all the characters.  They are sort of inventions of oneself. They are creations that come out of some part of yourself. Or some part that interests you, not necessarily what you are. So I think if you’re a writer and you write during the day, those characters become very active in your life. I mean I never feel alone when I’m writing. I feel, hey, I’ve got to talk to Coop, or something. You may be alone in a room but, for a number of hours a day, you’re in a world that is populated by 5 or 6 people. And I think that Lucien’s more of an extreme case of someone who has kind of retreated from the world almost completely–from his family for a while, for various reason–and so he lives with those invented characters.


Q: Whereas you’ve said you can go out and be with people . . . sometimes. But you don’t talk about the book.

A: No, I never talk about the book. I’m one of those awful writers who keeps to himself for the duration of the book. So it’s kind of like a paper in one’s pocket that’s not revealed for a long time.


Q: And when you do reveal, is it in one fell swoop, all at once?

A: Yes, what I do is after about 5 or 6 drafts, or many times more, when I’ve taken it as far as I can go by myself, I then find 3 or 4 people who I trust enough to give it to who will then respond to it. And then, after those responses, I go back and work on it again for another year or so. So those are really kind of useful. By that point, I’ve got the story, physically sort of finding: Is this the right shape, is this the right pacing? Is this the right detail, does one character seem weak? Do I need to build that character up a bit more? So all those things come in at this second stage of rewriting.


Q: So you really are taking on board any kind of constructive criticism?

A: Well I don’t always agree with it. Not everything they say, I do. But it is important to me as I’ve been living in a kind of solitude with the story for so long that sometimes I don’t realize that one character has sort of disappeared, or something like that, you know? That’s the great joy of a book as opposed to a film. A film has already been filmed. They’ve already been to Spain and Portugal so they can’t go back, unless they’ve got a lot of money. Whereas, with a book you can turn someone into a Scotsman and have much less expense.


Q: One of the parts of the book deals with Coop becoming a gambler, so you write intriguingly about gambling, particularly poker. Is this something you had to learn or is it something that you already knew?

A: I knew a little bit, but I really didn’t know that world at all. I knew how to play poker, not that I play poker a lot. But I suppose I should pretend that I play a lot, I guess.


Q: But you did a little research?

A: I did go to Vegas but I didn’t really like Vegas very much. I went there rather late in the day. But it just seemed such a kind of unreal place, and it was unreal when I got there, whereas Lake Tahoe was a bit more modest, and it’s more like real life. So I went to Tahoe several times and I talked to full-time gamblers. I didn’t want to talk to weekend gamblers and all that. So I did do that and hung around and had dinners with them. I didn’t watch the game because the game was already in my head, that is, the invention of the game. But I did talk to them a lot. I’d ask them: “What would you do?” “How would you do this?”

And, I met a magician who was also an incredible card player, and I talked to him about stuff. It was a very interesting world. What was interesting about inventing that world was not so much how they won or how they lost, but their general behavior–just how they lived their lives. In the morning, their TVs were always on mute. It was almost a way of watching TV, but it wasn’t. You were watching the visuals, but you were talking about something else or playing cards or something like that. So little details like that grew out of my knowledge of it.


Q: A small point about those gamblers, you have them talking and agreeing about the worst movie ever as being Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Where did that come from?

A: I know I’m going to hear about that. I just saw that film and thought it was a terrible film.  You know, I think this–it’s not me. Tell Brian DePalma, this is not me. There was such panache in the way some of these people spoke, they were so sure about things. It was: What was the best drug, What was the best breed of dog. So I just went with that and so I was allowing a kind of outrageous certainty about what is the best film or what is the worst film. . . . I really hope it’s not one of David Thomson’s favorite films!


Q: One of the card players says, and again this may fall under that heading of outrageous certainty, “There’s nothing more seductive to a man that a woman in distress.” True?

A: Yes, again I think this is not me. The character of the Dauphin talks about it, and I think that’s him, and his world. And also it’s something that comes up later in the book with another character in the desert. And it’s also, I think, a sort of set-up of a kind of noir quality, in what happens to Coop.


Q: Yes, speaking of noir, one of the chapters is even named “Out of the Past.”

A: Yes, I had a lot of “Out of the Past” that I took out out of the book, at one point. But that kind of woman in distress who fools you–that is an element, something in the plot, to some extent. So that was a preparation for that, I guess.


Q: The title of the book, Divisadero, as you say in the book, has at least 2 meanings: It’s a street in San Francisco from the Spanish word for “divide,” but it also means “gaze from afar” in Spanish. How did this come to be the title of this work?

A: To be honest, it began as a word I love. The first time I saw it, many, many years ago, I just loved that name: it had, first of all, more vowels than my own name, which is rare! And it was the sound–a great word. I would drive past or along Divisadero so often, and then gradually it seemed to me that it was a kind of apt title, not just for the meanings that you mention of being a division and also to look at something from afar the way Anna does, from France, from afar, or interpret the past in some way about her own life. But the book is sort of in two sections that link up very closely. There is a divide, there is a divider, in the book, so it seemed very apt in some way.


Q: And finally, you write a beautiful passage about childhood, when you write about Rafael as a little boy with his mother: “There were evenings when Aria and Rafael stood on dry night-grass with a hundred layers of stars above them. Uncountable. A million orchestras. . . . It was when he felt most clearly that there was no distinction between himself and what was beyond him–a tree’s sigh or his mother’s song, could, it seemed, have been generated by his body. Just as whatever gesture he made was an act performed by the world around him.” Is that also your idea of that blissful state of childhood?

A: I think so. I think that it’s not just childhood. There are times when that does happen to a person, or when one is in love or when one makes something. It’s where everything kind of merges, and it’s that very rare thing and it doesn’t happen all the time, obviously, but if for Rafael, who’s also the portrait of the artist in the book, it’s what limits that artistic moment, so if I limit it to art, obviously, it’s that moment where everything kind of coalesces, I guess. Probably is closer to childhood than adulthood, in many ways, but hopefully it happens again, at least once.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Ravishing and intricate. . . . Unforgettable." —Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books“My life always stops for a new book by Michael Ondaatje. . . . [Divisadero is] a mosaic of profound dignity, with an elegiac quietude that only the greatest of writers can achieve. . . . Ondaatje's finest novel to date.” —Jhumpa Lahiri"The more you give Divisadero, the more it gives in return . . . . [Ondaatje] is a writer of intense acuity." —The New York Times"Brilliant. . . . Divisadero plays whimsically with chronology and memory, with fantasy and historical fact." —San Francisco Chronicle
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Ravishing and intricate. . . . So unforgettable that it's hard, on finishing, not to turn back to the opening page and start all over.”
—Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. This is his first novel since Anil's Ghost (2000), and it may be his most complex: arching across the Gold Rush country of Northern California in the 1970s to the Nevada gambling circuit on the eve of the Iraq war to the peasant villages of France almost a century earlier. What unites the book's various settings is an ensemble of characters connected by blood, desire, and deeper, more mysterious correspondences. There are siblings, or almost-siblings, who become lovers, and a husband and wife who pass themselves off as brother and sister. There's also a father who adopts children, but later turns on two of them with terrible violence, and another who abandons his family, only to acquire a second family of a sort in his old age. Throughout are name changes, identity shifts, betrayals, and a continuing search for truth.

About the Guide

Anna, Claire, and Coop grow up together on a ranch near Petaluma, California, at a time when people still hunt for gold residue in nearby rivers. Anna is her father's natural child; Claire is her adopted sister, whose mother, like Anna's, died giving birth to her; Coop is a quiet boy taken in by the family after his parents are murdered. Their childhood passes idyllically until, in Anna's teenage years, she and Coop become lovers. When her father discovers them, he nearly beats the boy to death, stopping only when Anna stabs him with a shard of glass. In the aftermath, both Anna and Coop flee the ranch and take up new lives.

Coop becomes a gambler in the casinos around Lake Tahoe and, later, the small towns north of Los Angeles, where he falls under the spell of a femme fatale with a bewitching voice and a drug habit. Claire, now an investigator for a crusading public defender, ends up rescuing him. But it's Anna who travels the farthest from her origins, shedding her old name and leaving the United States for France. There she researches the life of the reclusive writer Lucien Segura and gradually disappears into it, living in the house that was once his and taking as a lover a man who, unbeknownst to her, was once a kind of son to Segura.

In the final third of the novel, Ondaatje delves into Segura's past, which unfolds on both sides of the Great War. Segura's story is beautiful and engrossing in its own right, but also seems to recapitulate-or, rather, anticipate-many events and relationships of the book's contemporary sections: its treasonous loves, its obsessive quests, its partings. Among Divisadero's many accomplishments is the way in which the novel transforms time, making the past as immediate as the present and imbuing the present with the tragic luster of the past.

About the Author

Michael Ondaatje is the author of four previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. His novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize. Born in Sri Lanka, he moved to Canada in 1962 and now lives in Toronto.

Discussion Guides

1. “The raw truth of an incident never ends,” Anna says [p. 1]. What might she mean by this, and how is her statement borne out in the course of the novel?

2. Setting plays a large role in Divisadero. How does Ondaatje characterize the Northern California countryside of Anna's childhood? How would you compare it to the French countryside where Segura spends his life and where the grown-up Anna retraces it? To what extent are this novel's characters connected to their physical environments?

3. Anna is an only child, but one with two adoptive siblings. So, for that matter, are Claire and Coop. What is the significance of adoption in this novel? Are its “natural” children necessarily the most favored? Which of these characters becomes an orphan later on, by necessity or by choice? How might losing one's original family have an effect, for better or for worse? Why do you think Anna is introduced in a chapter titled “The Orphan”? And what might she mean when she observes, “Those who have an orphan's sense of history love history” [p. 141]?

4. Because they were raised together, Anna's affair with Coop has incestuous overtones. Could this be why her father reacts so brutally when he finds them together? Might this be what drives her to reject her former life, or do you think there's another reason? Compare this liaison with the novel's other quasi-incestuous pairings: the young Lucien Segura and Marie-Neige, who has become a symbolic sister to him; Lucien's daughter Lucette and her younger sister's fiancé; Marie-Neige and her husband when they masquerade as brother and sister. How does the author seem to view these relationships? Do they seem to represent a perversion of intimacy or a heightening of it?

5. Closely aligned with the theme of incest is that of hidden or mistaken identity, a theme suggested by the Sanskrit term gotraskhalana, which denotes “calling a loved one by a wrong name” [p. 152]. Which of Ondaatje's characters pretends to be someone else? Which of them mistakes one person for another, or is misled into doing so? Which of them sloughs off a name, like the thief who calls himself Liébard and then, suddenly, on a whim, Astolphe? What do these impostures and confusions suggest about the nature of identity? Why might Liébard/Astolphe refuse to be photographed?

6. The past-both personal and collective-plays an important role in Divisadero. After turning her back on her childhood, Anna becomes an archivist, cataloguing the past via Lucien Segura's life. After two brutal beatings as a result of his love affairs, Coop forgets his past. How does the past function in these instances, among others? Would you say these characters are trapped in it or sustained by it?

7. At what points does history intrude into this novel, and with what effect? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to set one scene involving Coop during the first Gulf War and another on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion?

8. How is the theme of the past reflected in the novel's chronological scheme, which moves from the 1970s to 2003, then backward in time to the turn of the last century, then forward once more? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to structure Divisadero this way? How does this affect the novel's sense of suspense, and how might you relate this to the kind of suspense that young Lucien and Marie-Neige find in The Black Tulip?

9. Most of Ondaatje's characters are looking for something or someone: Anna for a long-dead writer, Coop for love and treasure (dredged from the river or extracted from the suckers at a card table), Claire for Coop. Discuss the role quests play in Divisadero. How, in particular, do they form a bridge between the novel's present and its multiple pasts? Which of the characters' quests is destructive, and which useful, even vital?

10. There are certain key repetitions in the novel. Discuss the doubling (and sometimes more than doubling) of the following: an attack by an animal, a woman nursing an injured man, a father coming upon his daughter making love, a man imparting a skill or craft to a younger one.

11. What role does craft play in this novel? Discuss those scenes in which someone learns to, for example, build a cabin, or deal poker, or repair a clock, or write a novel. What-apart from the skill-is being imparted? What distinguishes those characters who have mastered a craft from those who haven't?

12. Most of Divisadero's characters are motivated by love, of various sorts. How does Ondaatje characterize these kinds of love? Which kinds are exalting and which degrading, and why? Compare Anna's love for Coop to the love that Claire feels for him, Coop's love for Anna to that which he later feels for Bridget, Rafael's love of his mother to Segura's love of his daughter, Lucette.

13. The novel takes its name from a street in San Francisco where Anna lives for a while. In Spanish the word means both a division and a vantage point [pp. 142-3]. Does this double meaning suggest a way of looking at-viewing-the entire novel?

14. At least two of this book's narratives lack an obvious conclusion. Why might Ondaatje have chosen to end them when he does? How is this related to Anna's aforementioned statement: “The raw truth of an incident never ends”?

Suggested Readings

John Berger, G, Pig Earth, Once In Europa, Lilac and Flag; Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers; Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double and The Gambler; Denis Johnson, Already Dead; Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, Lolita; Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française; Georges Perec, Life, a User’s Manual; Stendhal, The Red and the Black; Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

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