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A bookshop becomes an inspiration for transformation in this thought-provoking tale by author and essayist Hwang Bo-reum.

After she burns out from her intense career and divorces her controlling husband, Yeongju decides to find emotional fulfillment by pursuing her childhood dream of owning a bookshop. Although she finds the business aspect of running a bookshop more challenging than she expected, Yeongju discovers that she’s created a special space for thought, growth and connection with others. Included in the cast of characters who are inspired by Yeongju and her bookshop sanctuary are Minjun, a young man desperate for work after dropping out of university who becomes the shop’s barista; Jungsuh, a woman who quits her job because of its unfair policies and now spends her time crocheting at the store; and Seungwoo, an office worker-turned-author who hosts a writing workshop at the bookshop.

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is a slice-of-life tale with appealing characters whose trials stay light on drama. Their stories explore aspects of Korean culture, including the expectation that children defer to their parents and wives to their husbands, and the value placed on success in work over the development of one’s inner life. While the prose is clear and uncluttered, at times the narrative can feel stilted and repetitive, although this may be an impact of the translation from the original Korean. Still, the messages about happiness and not wasting time in unsuitable and meaningless endeavors are uplifting and provide a cozy read. This title may be a match for fans of What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama and Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is an uplifting and cozy slice-of-life tale with appealing characters whose trials stay light on drama.

Annie Brown was the proverbial glue of her family. She picked up her husband, Bill, at a party and they married after their fling led to a pregnancy—the first of many for the Brown family. Annie brought joy to the patients at the nursing home where she worked. She provided accountability for her best friend, Annemarie, when the temptation to revisit addictions flared. Beyond Bill’s trusted life partner, Annie was both role model and caregiver for their daughter and three sons. So when she dies, suddenly, the people around her are not simply bereft—they’re lost. As Bill reflects on his wife’s death, he observes the disjointed way Annie’s loved ones stumble through their grief: “There was some kind of river of loss underneath them all. There was no way to know how to move on.” 

In Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, After Annie, the novelist turns her masterful eye on the lives of the people closest to Annie: Bill, their daughter Ali, and Annemarie. As Quindlen cycles through their perspectives during the first year following Annie’s death, we see the ways the characters circle each other. Ali becomes an adult the moment her mom falls to the floor, absorbing the responsibilities her dad is too shell-shocked to take on. Bill, a plumber, responds to endless calls from the town’s single women. Annemarie initially makes time for Ali but soon drifts away as her addiction surges again. 

Throughout her career, Quindlen’s fiction and nonfiction alike have showcased her attention to detail and ability to weave compelling narratives from the common experiences that comprise life. After Annie follows in the footsteps of Miller’s Valley, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Alternate Side and other Quindlen novels that examine families and the people in their immediate orbits. After Annie is a heartfelt, nuanced portrait of life after loss.

In Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, After Annie, the novelist turns her masterful eye on a family’s life after loss.
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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Independence chronicles the lives of Bengali sisters Deepa, Priya and Jamini beginning in 1947, during a period of upheaval in India. Deepa looks for fulfillment in marriage, while Priya hopes to become a doctor like their father, and Jamini focuses on family and duty. When their father is fatally shot during a riot, their lives are turned upside down. During the Partition of India and Pakistan, each sister is forced to make a life-changing choice. At once a tender family portrait and a powerful exploration of Indian history, Independence is a rewarding book club pick. 

Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai tracks a diverse cast of characters whose lives are impacted by the Vietnam War. Phong, a Black American Vietnamese orphan, searches for his parents and dreams of immigrating to America. Dan, an American helicopter pilot haunted by his experiences in the war, goes back to Vietnam, aiming to lay the past to rest and mend his marriage. This stirring novel offers a nuanced look at how the country was affected by the conflict, and Nguyễn’s examinations of PTSD and racism will get book clubs talking.

Regina Porter’s The Travelers tells the story of two very different American families whose lives become interlaced over the course of several decades, beginning in the 1950s. James Vincent, a prosperous white lawyer, struggles to bond with his son, Rufus. Tensions mount after Rufus marries Claudia Christie, a Black woman. Through flashbacks, Porter provides a poignant account of Agnes, Claudia’s mother, who was raped as a young woman in Georgia. Porter masterfully spins the detailed stories of other family members as she explores the meaning of kinship and connection. The end result is an epic yet intimate tale teeming with humanity.

In Salt Houses, author Hala Alyan follows the Yacoubs, a Palestinian family displaced by the Six-Day War. The conflict splinters the family, as sisters Alia and Widad settle in Kuwait, and their mother goes to Jordan. Despite a troubled marriage, Alia and her husband, Atef, raise three children, two of whom move to America. Through skillful shifts in perspective, Alyan compassionately portrays the lives of the Yacoubs and their experiences across the years. Tradition, identity and assimilation are among the book’s many rich discussion topics.

Journey from India to Palestine, from Vietnam to midcentury America in these stellar reads.

As with her first novel, Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead, Emily Austin’s Interesting Facts About Space features a quirky main character in Enid, who loves listening to true-crime podcasts to calm down. “I hate being startled,” she notes. “I like my podcasts, horror movies, and ghost stories that I can pause and rewind. I handle fear sort of like a workhorse. I could charge bravely into a planned battle, take in the sights of bombs and corpses, but I would still be spooked by an unanticipated barn rat.” When we first meet her, Enid is listening to a particularly grisly podcast while baking a gender reveal cake for her pregnant half sister Edna. Into this moment comes a stranger who’s furious at Enid, and the exchange unfolds in such an unexpected way that I laughed out loud more than once.

Enid is half-deaf, neurodivergent and gay. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person. In short vignettes, Enid narrates her attempts to navigate an uncomfortable new relationship with her half sisters and keep tabs on her depressed mom. With the help of her best friend Vin, Enid’s also trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. Enid and Vin work at the Space Agency, managing information, from which Enid’s gathered a vast array of random facts about outer space, which she shares with her mother in attempts at connection.

The novel’s comic scenes of misunderstandings and non sequiturs are interspersed with Enid’s musings about herself, her high-school years and her parents. Enid may be in her 20s, but Interesting Facts About Space is a coming-of-age story. Balancing the comic and the dark, the novel slowly reveals the essential sadness in Enid’s past that she can’t let herself see, and though occasionally the novel’s first-person, present-tense voice can feel a little claustrophobic, that’s a small quibble. In a lesser writer’s hands, Enid’s quirky traits could feel constructed, but Austin makes Enid’s vulnerable voice and deep thoughts feel brave, heartbreaking and true.

Emily Austin’s quirky main character, Enid, is trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person.
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“Some women had worn love beads in the sixties; others had worn dog tags,” Kristin Hannah writes in The Women, her salute to American women who were nurses in the Vietnam War. It’s a book she has long wanted to write—since 1997—but didn’t feel ready to tackle until now. As she’s done before in runaway bestsellers like The Nightingale, The Great Alone and The Four Winds, Hannah demonstrates her knack for blending broad sweeps of history with page-turning plots to immediately engross legions of readers in even the most difficult of subjects.

The story covers more than 20 years, beginning in 1966 when 21-year-old Frankie McGrath impetuously joins the Army Nurse Corps, hoping to follow her beloved brother, Finley, to Vietnam. Her well-to-do parents live on Coronado Island in California and are very much concerned with keeping up appearances. Frankie’s father keeps a “Wall of Heroes” in his office filled with portraits of their family’s military veterans, even though he, to his shame, was declared ineligible to serve. Frankie’s life changes when one of her brother’s friends tells her, “Women can be heroes.”

Frankie arrives in Vietnam as a clueless, newly minted nurse, but she rises to the horrific circumstances and ends up finding her calling in life, as well as a turbulent romance. She slowly grows into a highly skilled surgical combat nurse, and the scenes of her working are particularly immersive, showing readers the traumatic experiences that soldiers, nurses and doctors experienced on a daily basis.

Over 265,000 women served during the Vietnam era, including about 10,000 American military women stationed in Vietnam during the war, most of them nurses. And yet, after the war, these women were met with remarks like “There were no women in Vietnam.” That’s the reaction Frankie gets when she returns home, and the last half of the book deals with her struggle with Americans who have little idea of or respect for what she’s been through. Her parents compound her feelings of shame and confusion when they reveal that they explained her absence to their friends by pretending Frankie had been studying abroad. Amidst so much misunderstanding, she relies on the support of two lifelong nursing friends as she deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression.

In true Hannah fashion, The Women delivers a compelling read as well as a new understanding of the Vietnam era.

Kristin Hannah demonstrates her knack for blending broad sweeps of history with page-turning plots in this salute to military and civilian women who served during the Vietnam era.
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One of the first things I assumed when I started reading Rebecca K Reilly’s sad, hilarious novel Greta & Valdin was that the titular Maori and Russian New Zealander siblings must be teenagers. They are certainly adolescently self-absorbed and lovelorn, Valdin overcome with heartache over his ex-boyfriend and Greta harboring a puppy-dog crush on her tutor. It’s a mild shock to learn that Valdin is about 30 years old and a former physicist turned comedian, while Greta is five years younger, working on a useless master’s thesis and perpetually broke.

Greta and Valdin live together, and though they won’t acknowledge it, depend on one another. She’s hurt when he flies off to Buenos Aires and neglects to stay in touch with her. When Valdin comes back, he wonders what sort of flowers to buy along with a bag of limes to soothe Greta’s feelings. Their family members—Russian father Linsh, Maori mother Beatrice and older brother Casper (not his real name, but a name bestowed at birth because he was so pale)—take the siblings’ loopiness in stride. After all, they’re a fairly loopy bunch themselves.

Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters. She brilliantly builds the world of the siblings bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle. Here’s a mention of a popular drink, a song, a snippet of another language or dialect, the names of local shops and bars, the specific clothing people wear: All combine not just to make the world feel real and lived in, but also to explain why Greta and Valdin are the way they are. Everyone in their circle acts like they’re 16. Why shouldn’t Greta and Valdin follow suit?

Ultimately joyous and life-affirming, Greta & Valdin is Reilly’s first novel. This reviewer is eager to see what she does next.

Rebecca K Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters, building the world of siblings Greta and Valdin bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle.
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“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful village inside an ancient forest on the slope of a mountain that looked down upon the sea.” As the protagonist, Irini, repeats this refrain throughout Christy Lefteri’s latest novel The Book of Fire, the words start to feel like an omen of tragedy instead of a fairy-tale beginning. One scorching summer day, Irini’s idyllic Greek island village is irrevocably transformed when a fire set by a man greedy to build property burns out of control. Irini, her husband, Tasso, and her daughter, Chara, survive the hellish experience with scars both visible and painfully unseen. In the fire’s aftermath, Irini begins to record what happened in a journal that she calls “The Book of Fire.” She cannot bring herself to play her beloved music, much like how Tasso, an artist, cannot lift his paintbrush. Her village—the village of her great-grandfather—is mourning the beauty and innocence it has lost along with the people who died. The villagers focus their collective grief and anger into hatred for the man who started the fire. And yet, in her confusion and pain, Irini wonders about a broader shared responsibility for the devastation, asking, “Could there be something destructive and barren in all of us that bleeds out onto our land?” 

Much like she did in Songbirds, which elevated the voices of migrant domestic workers, Lefteri draws on real events in this new novel, having traveled to Mati, Greece, to speak to locals about the fire they endured in 2018. In The Book of Fire, Lefteri turns her sensitive gaze to global climate change and how increasingly prevalent deadly fires have become. Her zealousness in warning of the dangers posed by our neglect of the land and its needs occasionally veers into overt preaching, yet this sense of urgency does propel the plot forward. Her language, as always, is evocative and precise, and her story remains heartbreaking even as it inches toward healing and the hope of restoration. Irini observes that the “fire has burnt our souls, our hearts. It has turned to ashes the people we once were,” but this stalwart community, like the ancient chestnut tree that figures prominently in the story, is “still alive . . . and its branches reach up to the sun.”

Christy Lefteri draws on real events in this new novel about an idyllic Greek island village that is irrevocably transformed when a fire set by a man greedy to build property burns out of control.
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In the wake of a difficult divorce, Maggie, the 29-year-old heroine of Monica Heisey’s Really Good, Actually, tries to find her place in the world. As she adapts to the single life, she experiments with dating apps and enrolls in creative writing classes. But processing the divorce proves to be difficult, and Maggie finds herself on a downward spiral. Heisey uses humor to brighten the story of a woman who is mourning her marriage, and the result is a wry, probing breakup book that’s sure to resonate with readers.

In Mona Awad’s All’s Well, Miranda Fitch hits rock bottom after an accident puts an end to her marriage and her dreams of becoming an actress. While coping with chronic back pain, she faces challenges as the director of a university theater where she hopes to produce Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Miranda’s life takes an extraordinary turn when a trio of men—all strangers—tell her they can help her manage her pain. Fitch’s exploration of identity, female desire and, of course, the work of Shakespeare makes this whimsical novel a rewarding choice for book clubs.

Candice Carty-Wiliams’ People Person follows Dimple Pennington, a London-based social media influencer who’s adrift in the world. At the age of 30, she’s living with her mother, hoping to grow her online following and struggling to keep her volatile boyfriend, Kyron, in check. When she is unexpectedly reunited with her half siblings—Lizzie, Prynce, Danny and Nikisha—and their unpredictable father, Cyril, Dimple is reminded of the power and complexities of kin. Carty-Williams touches upon themes of race and self-acceptance in this intense, funny family tale.

Weike Wang’s Chemistry is narrated by an unnamed female student working on a doctorate in chemistry at Boston University. The narrator’s future looks bright until her boyfriend proposes and she’s paralyzed by doubts about their relationship. Faced with stressful lab work and the expectations of her Chinese immigrant parents, she suffers a mental collapse. Wang’s portrayal of the narrator’s emotional unraveling and path back to normalcy is powerful, compassionate and at times comic. Topics like family conflicts, the importance of work-life balance and the pressures of academia will prompt lively dialogue among readers.

Dodge the New Year hustle with these four novels featuring lovably floundering protagonists.
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In Lynn Steger Strong’s stirring Flight, siblings Kate, Henry and Martin struggle to make it through the holidays after the death of their mother. Assembling at Henry’s home with their respective families for Christmas, they try to be cheerful while sorting out big issues like whether to keep their mother’s house. When the daughter of a friend disappears, the siblings offer support, and the crisis transforms each of them. Strong’s powerful novel features a range of discussion topics, including grief, inheritance and the bonds of family.

Set on the border between Texas and Mexico, Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester chronicles the marriage of Isabel and Martin. Martin’s late father, Omar, deserted the family when Martin was a boy. But every fall, on the Day of the Dead, Omar’s ghost visits Isabel and begs her to convince Martin and the rest of the family to forgive him. As the novel unfolds, Isabel learns more about Omar and his past, and her discoveries threaten her happiness. Themes like loyalty, memory and the Mexican American immigrant experience will spark spirited dialogue among readers.

In Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, successful writer of Christmas romances (an occupation she conceals from her Jewish family), is asked to pen a love story set during Hanukkah—an assignment that proves daunting. Rachel finds Hanukkah lackluster compared to Christmas, and she hits a wall while dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. In need of motivation, she helps organize a Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball, reconnecting with an old flame along the way. Meltzer mixes humor with romance to concoct a delightful holiday frolic.

December takes an unexpected turn for the Birch clan in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us. Emma and Andrew Birch look forward to spending Christmas at Weyfield Hall, their country house, but when their daughter Olivia, who’s a doctor, returns from Liberia where she was exposed to a dangerous virus, the family is forced to quarantine for a week. Despite rising tensions and the reveal of a huge family secret, the Birches become closer than ever during their Yuletide lockdown. Poignant yet festive, Hornak’s novel is a treat.

There’s nothing more fun than gossiping about fictional characters with your book club.

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously pondered, “What’s in a name?” and although she may have concluded that names fail to reflect any intrinsic qualities of a person, the protagonist of Jessica George’s compassionate debut novel, Maame, knows better. Dubbed “Maame” by her mother as a baby, Madeline Wright has struggled with the weight of her nickname her entire life. The seemingly innocuous five-letter Twi word is heavy with multiple meanings: “the responsible one,” “the mother,” “the woman.”

Now in her 20s, Maddie believes that her life in London has well and truly stalled. In order to keep her family afloat, she works as a personal assistant, performing soul-crushing drudge work in offices where she is often the only Black person. When she’s not at work, she cares for her father, who has Parkinson’s disease, because her mother spends most of the year back in Ghana, only checking in to ask for money or hound Maddie about when she plans on getting married. Maddie’s older brother is never around and rarely takes her calls. So at the tender age of 25, Maddie has never had sex, still lives at home and finds herself wondering if her mother’s pet name was meant as a term of endearment or a curse.

When her mother unexpectedly returns to England, Maddie takes the chance to stretch her wings, fly the nest and reinvent herself. With plenty of growing pains along the way, Maddie navigates flat-sharing, new friendships, online dating and sex, racism, career changes and grief. Slowly, she transforms from a sheltered girl who had adulthood prematurely thrust upon her into a woman of her own making. 

Masterfully balancing comedy, tragedy and tenderness, Maame is a nuanced and powerful coming-of-age story. George candidly captures the false starts, heartbreak and awkwardness of early adulthood with empathy and a necessary dose of humor. Maddie easily joins the highest ranks of memorable and lovable “hot mess” characters. Like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie Jenkins and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant before her, Maddie is a good reminder that through all of life’s hardships, we can be the authors of our own happy endings, and it is never too late to become who you might have been. 

Like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie Jenkins and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, Maddie is a good reminder that we can be the authors of our own happy endings, and it is never too late to become who you might have been.
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Have you ever had an awful day that you’d love to forget? And then another, and another? Yet you don’t want to admit the pattern to yourself, let alone to anyone around you, so you keep pretending that everything is OK? We’ve all been there, and this empathy is at the heart of Monica Heisey’s debut novel, Really Good, Actually.

As she approaches 30, Maggie has been busy as a graduate student in Toronto, building a life with her new husband—until that disappears in a moment, with the shock of a breakup. She can’t figure out how to move forward, even as everyone around her, from her graduate school adviser to her friends, tries to help her see a way through. She can’t quite pick up the pieces, which readers witness in obsessive emails, Google searches, group chats and conversations. Instead, she tries to convince everyone (particularly herself) that actually, she really is good—even great. 

Maggie’s voice is engaging, allowing readers to feel her pain, cringe at her adventures and communication attempts, and root for her to find her footing. She’s a quintessential mess, making decisions that aren’t what anyone would advise, and yet she doesn’t wallow (at least not for too long). We cheer her on, hoping that she’ll figure it all out, or at least some of it. 

There’s humor and grace in Really Good, Actually—a lightness of touch, a wry wit. Maggie is a woman disembarking from traditional romance to find herself. And while her marriage might have been short, her voice is enduring, and her journey is engaging, surprising and fresh.

There’s humor and grace in Really Good, Actually—a lightness of touch, a wry wit. Maggie is a woman disembarking from traditional romance to find herself, and her journey is engaging, surprising and fresh.

Well-crafted characters add to the heartfelt drama in Now You See Us, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s alluring literary mystery that’s a gem for fans of Nita Prose’s The Maid and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

Reserved Corazon (Cora), headstrong Donita and altruistic Angel are Filipina domestic workers and friends living in Singapore. They support one another through their group text message thread, where they share stories of their treatment by their affluent employers, from Cora’s discomfort around her employer’s attempts at camaraderie, to Donita’s frustration with the controlling Mrs. Fann, who punishes her determined young maid at every opportunity. 

One night, when Donita is sneaking home from a rendezvous with her boyfriend, she sees her friend, Flordeliza, getting into a taxi. The next day, Flordeliza is accused of murdering her employer. Donita enlists the help of Cora and Angel to prove Flordeliza’s innocence, though getting close to the crime risks unleashing secrets that would destroy them all.

Jaswal’s scathing indictment of the exploitation of immigrant labor unfolds against a tantalizing backdrop, revealing the rich culture of Singapore while shedding light on systems of oppression and entitlement. She explores the class disparities between the maids and their gossiping employers, as well as the race- and ethnicity-based social structures among the domestic workers; for example, a maid from the Philippines will receive a higher wage than one from Myanmar. “Foreigners made the mistake of assuming that all house help would get along, but there were hierarchies and histories,” Jaswal writes.

While the sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing. In simple yet evocative ways, she peels back the layers of each woman, revealing how their choices are restricted by their past predicaments and current circumstances.

While sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing.
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Maya has it all figured out: She’s on the fast track to a promotion at her investment firm, she has a great apartment in Miami, and she’s still dating her handsome college sweetheart, a retired professional football player who will almost certainly put a ring on it sometime in the near future.

So when the producers of “Real Love”—a thinly veiled fictional version of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, in which author Rachel Lindsay starred—offer Maya the chance to be the lead on the upcoming season, she declines. Her best friend, Delilah, gets the part, and almost immediately, Maya questions her decision. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, and suddenly the life she envisioned is up in the air. As she watches Delilah have the time of her life on “Real Love,” Maya must reckon with her own path.

In 2022, Lindsay released a dishy essay collection, Miss Me With That, which included reflections on her stint as the first Black Bachelorette. (In 2019, she married the winner of her season.) Real Love is Lindsay’s first novel, and it’s pure fun, a fizzy and relatable mixture of female friendship, romance and career struggles, with a dash of behind-the-scenes reality TV. 

Lindsay perfectly captures the uncertainty and exhilaration of single life, imbuing Maya with shades of Carrie Bradshaw, another woman in her early 30s trying to solidify her identity and navigate romantic relationships with the help of her friends. Unlike Carrie’s penchant for cosmopolitans, Maya’s drink of choice is a simple Crown whisky and Coke. Also unlike Carrie, Maya is firmly in the Ann Taylor and J. Crew fashion camp, which is a source of endless chagrin for her stylish and audacious younger sister, Ella, who is a hilarious foil to Maya’s sensible personality.

Maya has doggedly pursued her career and stayed in a safe but faltering relationship for years, so the possibility of change is exciting and terrifying. Should she stay in Miami and climb the corporate ladder? Move to Seattle with a kind and hot artist? Drop everything and travel? Her ultimate decision is less important than the simple act of choosing a course based on what she wants for the first time.

Real Love is a charming and pleasurable read. I raise a glass of Crown and Coke to Lindsay.

Real Love is pure fun, a fizzy and relatable mixture of female friendship, romance and career struggles, with a dash of behind-the-scenes reality TV.

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