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The Vanishing Point
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From the author of the "wrenching and exhilarating" All Things Cease to Appear comes a gripping literary thriller about a man reckoning with the mysterious death of his former roommate (Wall Street Journal).Julian Ladd and Rye Adler cross paths as photography students in the exclusive Brodsky Workshop. When Rye needs a roommate, Julian moves in, and a quiet, compulsive envy takes root, assuring, at least in his own mind, that he will never achieve Rye’s certain success. Both men are fascinated with their beautiful and talented classmate, Magda, whose captivating images of her Polish neighborhood set her apart, and each will come to know her intimately – a woman neither can possess and only one can love.
Twenty years later, long after their paths diverge, Rye is at the top of his field, famous for his photographs of celebrities and far removed from the downtrodden and disenfranchised subjects who’d secured his reputation as the eye of his generation. When Magda reenters his life, asking for help only he can give, Rye finds himself in a broken landscape of street people and addicts, forcing him to reckon with the artist he once was, until his search for a missing boy becomes his own desperate fight to survive.
Months later, when Julian discovers Rye’s obituary, the paper makes it sound like a suicide. Despite himself, Julian attends the funeral, where there is no casket and no body. This sudden reentry into a world he thought he left behind forces Julian to question not only Rye’s death, but the very foundations of his life.
In this eerie and evocative novel, Elizabeth Brundage establishes herself as one of the premiere authors of literary fiction at work today.
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All photographs are time exposures of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time…Uniquely in the history of pictures, a photograph describes only that period of time in which it was made. Photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the present, the past through its surviving relics, the future through prophecy visible in the present.
—John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye
Portraits of Adults
A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
—Richard Avedon, In the American West
It was on the subway that night, heading home from work, when he discovered the news about Rye Adler. Peering over the shoulder of a fellow commuter, he saw his long-lost friend looking back at him. Under his gloomy, unsmiling portrait read the headline: Rye Adler, Photographer of the Rich and Infamous, Is Presumed Dead at 52. Shaken, he stepped off the train at 86th Street and climbed up from the din of the underground into the late March dusk, taking the damp air into his lungs. For a moment he stood on the sidewalk, bearing the wake of irritable strangers, then started west as a cold rain began to fall. He remembered a bar he’d gone to a few times over on Amsterdam, and he walked the few blocks without an umbrella, ducking under ledges and awnings. The place wasn’t crowded, and once he’d crossed its dark threshold, entering a sanctuary of bloodred booths and muffled chatter, he doubted his ability to ever leave. He sat at the bar in his coat and ordered cheap bourbon because that was what he’d drunk with Adler back in the day, when they were grad students in Philadelphia and in love with the same woman.
Unlike his old friend, Julian hadn’t made it. Not like he’d hoped. His mother always consoled him that it took longer than anyone predicted, but now that he was almost fifty, the prospect of any true recognition seemed doubtful. His friends all had the impression that he was doing well, better than they were, even, but this perception was entirely superficial, based on his skillfully curated social media pages and the sound bites he used at cocktail parties and gallery openings. Early on, he had, like Rye, achieved a certain distinction for attending the famed Brodsky Workshop, known among photography insiders as a breeding ground for the best talent, but for reasons that remained mysterious to him, things hadn’t turned out like he’d planned. Out of pride, he’d convinced himself that he wasn’t a failure; he was simply more suited to commercial work, and by anyone else’s standards he’d had a fine career. He’d made plenty of money. But advertising was a whole different animal, or maybe mindset was the better word. You had to narrow your focus and put the needs of others before your own. Others: that vast, proverbial melting pot of humanity. Whenever he lost track of what that was, he took a field trip to Walmart and roamed the aisles. He and Rye were on opposite ends of the anthropological spectrum: where Rye exploited his subjects in the name of high art, Julian promoted the products that kept them alive.
He finished his second drink and thought of calling his wife, a habit he had yet to break. He had to assume she’d seen Adler’s obituary. He pictured her wandering around in a morbid daze, crashing into things. He would never forget their last night together out in Westchester, how she’d sat on the back steps in her mother’s old coat, smoking like a teenager. And later, after he’d held her for the last time, how she’d cried in his arms. He knew it was mostly his fault. As his therapist liked to say, he had trouble committing to things. While he’d succeeded in staying married to the same woman for exactly twenty-one years, he’d never actually felt committed—just the word made him feel wrapped in a straitjacket—and he could admit to being a shitty father even though he still couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t even say his son’s name out loud without breaking a sweat, that was the truth of it. How he would ultimately resolve this in his mind, he didn’t have a clue; maybe he never would. He felt really bad about that, but, to be fair, it wasn’t Julian who’d asked for the divorce. Ever since the thing with his assistant, she’d stopped talking to him. Shortly thereafter, he’d been served with divorce papers at his office, and Vera, his assistant, had gone into the bathroom to cry. It was kind of a scene. Embarrassing him like that in front of the people he worked with hadn’t been nice. But his wife could be ruthless when she set her mind to it. Under the circumstances, he was glad he’d insisted on keeping the apartment. This was where he belonged. Here in the city, alone.
He sat in the bar till closing, then walked home in the cold, pulling up his collar. The lobby of his building, with its deco floors and granite walls, seemed morbidly serene, and the lonesome elevator, as it rose to the fourteenth floor, was like a rattling cage. He shuffled down the corridor to his door and retrieved the paper from his mat. As he stepped inside, he encountered the screaming emptiness of his apartment. There was no longer any evidence of their life together. Even their wedding photograph, which had long reigned on the surface of the credenza, was absent. After that last night, when he knew it was over with her, he could no longer bear to look at it and threw it into the incinerator.
He poured himself a drink and stood for a moment in the silent living room, staring out at the night, the city’s cold geometry. The vacant streets seemed to ache with a prescient gloom. He spread out the paper on the coffee table and reread the article about Adler, which listed his numerous awards and accolades, his long-standing Magnum membership, and his gift for capturing the inner lives of celebrities, quoting some of the editors he’d worked with, none of them able to comprehend how he’d met with such a fateful end. It was a tragic little story, really. As previous articles had alleged, he’d possibly taken his own life, hurling himself off a bridge somewhere upstate, but his body had not been found, and nobody was really sure if it was suicide. To anyone who knew Adler as well as Julian did, suicide was certainly not an option. They were having a memorial service on Sunday up in Hudson. He knew he had to go.
He wasn’t especially tired. He lay on the couch, its fabric like cold asphalt and its architecture equally unyielding, remembering that September of ’98 when they first met, back when they were still equals and nearly feral with ambition. The Brodsky Workshop was competitive; it took only twelve students a year. Unlike the others’, Julian’s CV was pretty unremarkable. He’d gone to Rutgers, then worked a couple years at the Star-Ledger, Newark’s stalwart chronicle of the times, covering mostly sports and local elections, the occasional crime. He was still living at home, working out of a darkroom he’d built in his mother’s basement, when he’d decided to apply. He could vaguely recall the work he’d submitted to get in: stark black-and-white shots of his neighborhood out in Jersey, the unbearable stillness of the houses on the cul-de-sac, the overgrown lot behind the Pathmark, where, at thirteen, he’d gotten caught shoplifting, the window of the pizza parlor in the village, piled to the ceiling with slim white boxes.
As proud as he’d been of those images, it soon became obvious that Rye’s were better. When they tacked up their assignments on the wall, Adler’s stood out. They were street scenes, mostly. People you might see every day but captured with a certain unapologetic tenderness. The woman in the pink kerchief, for example, standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette, accusing you of not noticing her just like all the other people in her life, the husband she couldn’t trust, the mother who drank, indifferent teachers blind to her potential, all evident in the premature lines on her forehead, the shabby, slightly dirty white handbag clutched under her arm, the fraying collar of her coat. Adler didn’t just look at someone; he looked into them, without judgment, with the sort of empathy they couldn’t find anywhere else.
By the end of the first week, everybody knew Rye Adler had something special. Everybody wanted to be around him. To know what he knew. To see how he saw. Even then, when he was still in his twenties, people who mattered were calling him a visionary.
Almost by chance, they shared an apartment that year. Julian had been living out of his suitcase in a cramped, seedy motel room when he saw a ROOMMATE WANTED notice in the workshop lounge. You might say that everything that followed was set into motion the second he pulled off that tab with Rye’s number on it. It was one of those older walk-up buildings around the corner from the university. The apartment was on the second floor over a hardware store that featured, in its large storefront window, a cat named Nicholas who dozed all day in the sunlight and patrolled the aisles by night; occasionally they’d wake to a murderous disruption. Of the two small bedrooms, Rye’s was slightly larger and had built-in shelves stacked with books of all kinds. Thumbtacked to the wall were assorted black-and-white pictures he’d taken of his parents in their Marrakech home, his mother’s glance of expectation as she fondled her beads, his father peering up over a French newspaper, and a poster from his favorite film, Blow-Up, which Julian hadn’t seen. Julian’s room was narrow and spare, with a twin bed and a dresser and a window that looked out on an alley. It suited him just fine. In the living room were a couple of mismatched chairs Rye had pulled off the street and a plant with leaves like elephant ears that clung to the dirty bay window. From the moment he moved in, Julian concluded that as roommates they were incompatible. Where Julian preferred a quiet, nearly monastic existence, Adler had a sort of impromptu celebrity that attracted a nightly brigade; it wasn’t unusual to find strangers sleeping on the floor the next morning. Even though it sometimes annoyed Julian, he never complained; he knew that living with someone like Rye was, for him, an accident of destiny. As a result, he didn’t mind being the one to clean up the mess, the countless beer bottles, ashtrays, dirty plates, and when Rye would emerge hours later still in his boxers, his hair mussed, surprised to find the apartment clean, he’d tease him for being such a neat freak. Julian didn’t let it bother him. Rye often treated him with measured tolerance, like he was a slightly annoying little brother. And in turn he put up with Rye’s idiosyncrasies, the ever-present containers of takeout in the refrigerator or Rye’s dirty laundry getting mixed with his own. Once, at the Laundromat, he’d discovered one of Rye’s Hawaiian shirts at the bottom of his pile and, as a symbol of his devotion, washed and even ironed it and, with great satisfaction, presented it to Rye like a gift, but his roommate only shrugged and said thanks, as if he’d just handed him the newspaper or something, and it occurred to Julian that Rye was used to people doing things for him. Unlike Julian’s Levi’s and JCPenney sweaters, Rye bought his clothes at flea markets and secondhand shops, preferring, he said, the life-worn threads of dead men. He rolled his own cigarettes with cheap pipe tobacco and smoked like a drifter, pinching the butt between his two stained fingers, but as much as he personified a man on the skids, he had an arrogance only bought with money. One night, a little drunk, he admitted that his father had made a fortune as a civil engineer, an architect of bridges. They’d moved around a lot. No matter where they lived, he told Julian, his mother always insisted on fresh flowers. In contrast, Julian’s father was a mid-level executive for a women’s clothing company. He’d worked in the city on Seventh Avenue until he dropped dead of a heart attack when Julian was fifteen. Julian grew up an only child in a split-level house in Millburn. They had a Ping-Pong table in the basement and a white poodle named Lulu. His widowed mother had taken a job at Lord & Taylor, at the perfume counter, to make ends meet. She’d come home reeking of hyacinths.
Rye had a girlfriend from college, Simone, his soul mate, he’d bragged to Julian, who occasionally made the trip from Manhattan, where she was getting a PhD in English at Columbia, and would arrive beleaguered, with a bulging sack of books that would end up scattered around the apartment, defaced by coffee rings, Post-it Notes, and crumbs that would sprinkle from the bindings, and, for the duration of her visit, there was evidence of her presence on every possible surface, her knitting projects, rarely finished, bunched on the couch, her sloppy, malodorous vegetarian concoctions lining the refrigerator shelves, and strands of her hair in the sink and on the bathroom floor, not to mention the occasional pubic hair—Julian was always relieved when she left.
Unbeknownst to Simone, Adler had come down with a fever for one of the girls in the workshop, Magda. He wasn’t the only one; everyone was a little in love with her, even Brodsky. She was like a girl you happened to glimpse in a moving car, detained by some awful consequence, the type you wanted to save. She was local, from Port Richmond, the Polish neighborhood. Her parents had come over in the seventies, when she was a toddler, and along with an accent, she’d retained a certain reticence, unwittingly engineered by her Eastern Bloc roots. In stature, she was not delicate, and had a face that might have been drawn with thick crayon, the round bones in her cheeks, the wide mouth, the hungry, dark eyes. She dressed like a gypsy in baggy men’s trousers and outsize sweaters that concealed her sizable breasts and wore clunky shoes with straps, trawled out of Salvation Army bins. Her only vanity, it seemed, was the waxy ruby lipstick she drew on her lips. She seldom spoke up in class; perhaps she was intimidated—the women, three in all, had it rough. During the weekly critiques she’d stand in the back, lurking thoughtfully, her arms crossed over her chest. When her own work was critiqued, her back went rigid with defiance, like a Resistance fighter in front of a firing squad. She was good, and some of the men were jealous. Things were said to stir a reaction; they didn’t. She was stoic, unhindered. She worked as a figure model at the art school to make extra cash. One time he accidentally pushed through the doors of the studio where she was modeling naked on a platform. He remembered the cold look on her face as their eyes met across the enormous room. He backed out gently, before anyone else saw him, but something was established in that moment, something dark and indelible, seared into his memory like a brand.
When he finally mustered the courage to ask Magda out, he came home one afternoon to find her and his roommate coiled in the sheets.
It was another reminder that Adler was always a step ahead of him.
One weekend toward the end of the year, Rye invited Julian out to his mother’s summerhouse on Long Island, an old saltbox on the tip of Montauk. There were a few other Brodsky people there: Marty Fine and his boyfriend, Lars, Magda, of course, and Rye’s sister, Ava, who’d driven down from Boston. Ava was still in college, a junior at Harvard, studying metaphysics. She was a smaller version of Rye, but shy, pale as sour milk, the sort of girl who preferred the company of books to people and rarely left her dorm room. The house had been closed up for a while, some of the furniture covered with sheets, but it was an extraordinary old place, wood-paneled, musty, overlooking the ocean. Rye and Ava shared the pretense of being average—his scruffy, secondhand clothes, her worn-out green-suede loafers (they were Gucci)—but they had an undeniable exclusivity that set them apart. It was what money did to you, he guessed, allowed you to believe you didn’t need anyone, gave you permission to be aloof. They wandered around the house with its narrow hallways and large, drafty rooms, the smattering of priceless antiques, sun-faded couches, oil paintings of sailboats and the sea. He could only imagine what it must have been like growing up here in the summer. Julian’s own summers had been limited to the local Y camp, where, at fourteen, he’d started as a CIT, with a whistle around his neck and a jumble of lanyard in his pocket. Nobody in his neighborhood had a pool; they’d relied on sprinklers to cool off during the hottest months. But this place, you had the ocean calling to you from every single room.
It rained most of that Saturday and they dug out some old board games, Clue and Scrabble and even Twister, and listened to a stack of Sinatra albums. Finally, when the sun appeared, they piled into the wood-sided station wagon and drove into town to buy oysters; Rye had a shucking knife with his initials on it. He paid for everything, tossing his money onto the counter like a gambler buying chips. Back at the house, as the windows grew dark, they drank iced Stoli and smoked his mother’s stale Pall Malls in the small, outdated kitchen, the cabinets warped from the sea air. Opening the oysters, Rye cut himself, and some of the blood ran into one of the shells. Nobody noticed, but Julian chose that one. He swallowed the oyster whole, like a wad of phlegm, relishing its metallic taste.
After they ate, they climbed down the rickety stairs to the beach. The wind was cool off the water, and they were all a little drunk and shivering. They dug a pit and built a bonfire and circled around it like some kind of a cult, silently watching the flames. Magda was standing across from him, the firelight coating her bare arms, her neck. She had the hard, irreverent beauty of a goddess, he thought, and found he could look at nothing else. She met his eyes over the flames in what seemed to Julian a signal of collusion, for they were interlopers here, kindred by their middle-class roots. But the moment didn’t last. She took Rye’s arm and draped it around her shoulders, securing their underhanded alliance at least for the weekend.
They stayed up late, watching a monster movie on the old TV set, drinking whatever was left in the liquor cabinet. At some point, like thieves, Rye and Magda crept upstairs. He could still remember watching her slim, pale calves as they disappeared into the darkness. A little later, Marty and Lars drifted off to their room. He knew he wouldn’t sleep and stayed up with Ava, smoking too many cigarettes. They were both pretty drunk and he could tell that, like him, she was suspicious of the prospect of true contentment. They lay on the musty couch together with her feet near his head and his feet near hers, and she told him how their mother had died recently and the place wasn’t the same without her, and she kept thinking any minute her mother would be coming downstairs to tell her to go to bed, and how without any parents she felt all alone in the world, aside from her brother, who was usually too busy for her, and he said that even though his mother was still alive, he, too, felt alone, and they both fell asleep listening to the roar of the ocean, and when he woke up the next morning she was gone and she’d covered him with a blanket. He knew he’d never forget that kindness.
A photograph is a kind of death, Sartre said, a moment, taken like a prisoner, never to be again. Was the photographer, in essence, a coroner of time? They were reading the best minds on the subject, Szarkowski and Sontag and Berger and Barthes, and would gather nightly at The F-Stop to drink and argue the medium’s purpose and their role as photographers: Were they merely documenting the mundane evidence of life, or was a photograph the result of some inferred context? Were they looking out a window or looking into a mirror, as Szarkowski suggested?
In those days, they were still shooting film, mostly black-and-white, which was easier to process than color and cheaper and stood apart with its built-in austerity from ordinary snapshot photos. Julian was using the same SLR he’d had for years, a Canon AE-1, but Adler had acquired an arsenal of used equipment, including an old R. H. Phillips 4 x 5 view camera that he’d lug around the neighborhood on its tripod, persuading people to let him take their picture. While everybody else was home sleeping, he’d be up all night in the darkroom, producing luminous Cibachrome prints—a janitor, a busboy, a street preacher, various panhandlers, including a blind woman (an homage to Paul Strand), grifters, hookers, working people of all variety—packing all the pathos of a Dickens novel into one startling shot. He had a painterly hankering for saturated colors—the egg-yolk yellow of a waitress’s polyester uniform or the weedy brown of a mechanic’s coveralls—and bestowed his subjects with a dignity they seldom experienced in real life. When Rye put up his photos, a solemn reverence would descend on the room.
Julian didn’t make portraits. He didn’t like people in his shots. Instead, he was drawn to empty lots, condemned buildings. To him, there was a silent poetry in the sky over a vacant city park or the rubble of a razed building. Or a parking lot at dusk, the chorus of streetlamps, the empty carts inert as cows in a field. His images, he felt, were pure, almost religious—not that he was or ever had been at all religious; in fact, for all intents and purposes, he was agnostic—but, uncannily, he believed there was an aspect of God in his work. He didn’t know why this was. It certainly wasn’t deserved. For one thing, he was the product of a mixed marriage. As a result, his parents had forsaken religion and, unlike his friends growing up, he had not been forced to endure Sunday school. When people asked about his faith, he’d developed his own excuses for not taking part. Mostly, he didn’t feel he belonged. Whenever he found himself inside a church or a temple, he felt like an outsider. He couldn’t get beyond the rhetoric. He didn’t feel the presence of God. At the very minimum, God as a concept seemed pretty far-fetched. But when he took a photograph of some barren place, some sad and lonesome aftermath that reflected the indignities of man, the routine apathy displayed in the lurid destruction of a city playground, for instance, the resulting image seemed to shimmer with some unseen light, the promise of another dimension beyond what Julian could perceive with his own eyes, as if God were playing a trick on him. It wasn’t anything he talked about, but it caused a certain amount of private confusion, and sometimes when he was very drunk and behaving badly, courting the very edge of civility, he would feel a yearning to repent.
At his final critique, it was Rye Adler who spoke up, as if they’d all decided beforehand. In his vague, roundabout analysis he seemed to suggest that Julian’s photographs were vacuous. Your work has no soul was how he put it, delivered with such earnest gravity that no other student dared refute it. Not even Brodsky, who only gazed at Julian with brutal indifference, as if condemning him to a life in exile.
In his final collection of prints, Julian had tried to emulate Atget’s Paris—the mystery of a lonesome staircase, an unpopulated alleyway, an abandoned dinner table—but no one detected the comparison.
You’re an impartial observer, Rye concluded. There’s nothing at stake for you. I don’t know how to feel when I look at one of your pictures.
Why do you need to feel anything? Julian asked.
Rye looked at him cautiously but did not reply.
As they filed out of the room, Julian stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. He felt like a failure. That’s when Magda came up to him and put her hand on his shoulder. Don’t listen to them, she said. It’s not what’s there that matters. It’s about everything that’s not.
He clung to those words, even though nobody really cared what the women thought.
Over the years, he reflected on that single afternoon, the flat gray light of the studio, the rain streaming down the windows, the faces of the other students watching as Adler’s comments took effect like a dangerous drug, disabling some essential organ, a death sentence conferred in a single, impulsive moment.
When the program ended, Julian moved to New York and rented a gloomy one-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled, prewar building on Riverside Drive. Intent on working for the magazines, he made the rounds with his portfolio. Editors would stare at his pictures, glumly, and say nothing. None of them seemed to understand what he was trying to do. Eventually, when he ran out of money, he took a job as a junior account executive at a small advertising firm known for pharmaceutical marketing. As the new hire, he got stuck with all the boring accounts nobody wanted. He didn’t mind. He liked the routine, working alongside the pros, the long hours, the sense of importance he felt when he’d finally leave the office late at night and sit alone at his kitchen table, drinking a cold beer. And he liked the money. He appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to be a creative genius. It was good work, and he was good at it. For the first time in his life, he actually felt useful, like he had a purpose. Every now and then he’d run into someone from the workshop and they’d grab lunch and commiserate over their struggles, agreeing that things hadn’t exactly turned out as they’d planned. It was on one such occasion, sharing a table with Marty Fine at a deli near his office, that he learned Adler was on assignment for National Geographic,
- "Ms. Brundage, author of the superb All Things Cease to Appear (2016), has written another remarkable literary thriller…in this emotionally powerful work [she] leads us to an unforgettable truth, through scenes of searing intensity and luminous prose."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "A dark and moody literary mystery, centered on three photographers caught in a love triangle, Brundage’s stylish novel probes the relentless demands of real-world problems on artists and their work."—The New York Times Book Review
- "An ambitious, literary novel, The Vanishing Point is distinguished by its characterizations, its pervasive air of melancholy, and its beautiful style. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of thought-provoking attention given to the meaning and aesthetics of photography, and, like great photography, the novel is ultimately a work of memorable art."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Elizabeth Brundage's The Vanishing Point proves that she's one of the very best novelists writing today. It touches on crises that are politically immediate, of the moment, from climate change to income inequality to drug addiction. It gifts the reader with wisdom and insight. The novel brings into the sharpest focus how precious this thing is called life."—Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut
- "In this dark-toned mystery, Brundage develops an engrossing story about a love triangle involving three photographers. . . . The first half of the novel brilliantly dissects the competitive and erotic entanglements that mark the characters, and Brundage is particularly good at using photographic theory to describe how each sees the world."—Publishers Weekly
- "The interwoven lives of artists, failed and successful. . . . Brundage’s characters are convincing . . . well-written and affecting."—Kirkus Reviews
- “A novel about what is seen, but also what remains unseen in our lives. The interplay between the two is what makes great photography, a great story, and what makes The Vanishing Point a beautiful work of art.”—Elliot Ackerman, author of Red Dress in Black and White
Praise for All Things Cease to Appear
A 2016 Thriller of the Year (Wall Street Journal)
- "Lyrically written, frequently shocking and immensely moving . . . It was, perhaps, for such extraordinary books that the term 'literary thriller' was coined."—Wall Street Journal
- "A marriage, a sociopath, a family destroyed by the economy, the things we do for love -- all finely drawn. . . . In the end, justice is done and redemption found, though not at one might expect, which makes the book all the more satisfying."—Vanessa Friedman, New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- May 18, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company