The Beauty in Ugly, or, Thoughts on Rereading Eleanor & Park

Recently, I completed a reread of one of my favorite books of the year, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Since my feelings for the book remain pretty much unchanged from my those laid out in my original review, I’m not going to be reviewing it again. I will say that I think it’s a bit better in print than on audio, in case you’re trying to choose, but my love of the story remains unchanged. However, I do have additional thoughts about this book specifically and physical appearance in YA. You ready? Here’s a song for while you read in case that’s how you roll.

On Eleanor & Park
Though I thought this before, I didn’t talk about it much in my review, or maybe the audiobook version really highlighted this aspect. The evolution of Eleanor and Park’s feelings for one another is so well done. At the outset, they hate each other, Eleanor for him being as mean as everyone else and Park for her drawing unwanted attention him. Slowly, they bond over Park’s comic books and then music.

suddenly you discover humanity

At first, Park finds Eleanor thoroughly unappealing, but, in their discussions of comic books, the true Eleanor, opinionated and sassy, begins to show. When she begins to let her guard down and can stop being afraid all the time, Eleanor’s an incredibly interesting girl, and, when Park sees that, he’s a goner. Park falls hard, but, even then, the evolution is natural. He’s embarrassed about his feelings at first, because Eleanor’s the least popular girl in school. I love the realism of this. I know I was embarrassed of some of my high school crushes, and, if we’d dated, I’m sure I would have tried to keep the news under wraps.

cone of silence

As time passes, though, Park gets to the point where he’s not in the least ashamed. I loved the passion he obviously feels for Eleanor, who feels like she’s incredibly undesirable. Similarly, Eleanor thinks Park is about as attractive as person can be, even though he hates his looks because he doesn’t fit the American standard of masculinity, just like Eleanor doesn’t fit America’s then standards of beauty. YA so rarely shows that the reigning standard of beauty isn’t the only kind of attractive. With Eleanor and Park, it’s their personalities that open up the door to finding beauty in the body, and, gah, I love that so so much.

The Power of Personality
So much YA centers the romance around the attractiveness of the hero and heroine. They generally both look like models, whether they realize this or not. Everyone in the vicinity who’s attracted to their gender stops and stares, wishing they could stand a chance. In a sea of perfectly sculpted faces and bodies, it’s the oddballs who stand out. Attractiveness in YA has lost so much of its meaning through the sameness of the bulk of the characters.


The books and characters and romances I’m finding more memorable are the ones that differ from the set pattern of a beautiful person falling in love with another beautiful person. For one thing, in these novels, there tends to be a much greater focus on characterization, because there HAS to be. It’s easy for an author to say that the hero looks like Ryan Gosling circa The Notebook and leave us swooning, but more difficult if he’s got pimples and gangly limbs.

Hey girl

Now, I have nothing against the Ryan Goslings of the world. Frankly, I’m glad they exist, but this is YA we’re reading. How many guys in your high school were as well put together as the heroes in the novels? Sure, some of them are escapism and everyone being gorgeous is the point, much like it is on CW shows. But I’ve found this trend to be the case even in more hard-hitting, dark novels where realism is entirely the point, such as If You Find Me. I’m going to be totally honest here and say that, when it comes to television and movies, I do want my heroes and heroines to be gorgeous, because that takes a mediocre show and makes it worth watching because eye candy. With books, though, I really prefer the realism.


When the characters in a book aren’t conventionally attractive, the romance becomes much deeper in the long run, relying on characterization and a true connection between the characters. The romance arc generally along the lines of hate, indifference or friendship becoming love. These are slower burns and the relationship that develops is one based on personality and common interests, rather than on mutual admiration of physical perfection. While relationships between pretty people can also be based on personality, it’s less of a requirement, and a lot of authors don’t put as much effort into that when they start out with the perfect love interests. I want to see characters growing together and falling in love for WHO they are not how they look. The only kind of perfect I want to see is imperfect people who are perfect for one another, because they’re so compatible.

to me you are perfect

When a character, like Eleanor, is deemed undesirable by her peers, the author really has to establish what would make her an object of desire for someone. To do so, an author must first establish a bond between the two, as Rainbow Rowell does with comic books and music as Eleanor and Park ride the bus everyday. From there, the author then has to build the component of physical attraction, and the way that they really come to see the person differently, not unaware of who they are but placing a different value upon their appearance. These are the relationships I see lasting long term. A relationship based solely on physical attractiveness doesn’t seem like it would weather aging particularly well. Mutual interests and compatible personalities make for a stronger, better relationship in the long run.

More Examples
To conclude, I’m going to share some of the books I’ve read that include a heroine and/or hero who are not considered highly attractive by the social norms of the time period in which they live. Oh, and I’m throwing in one adult romance title for kicks. Deal with it.

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
Bet Me
Dark Triumph

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Cath’s pretty, I believe, if not remarkably so. In this case, the love interest is less conventionally attractive. He’s described as having a receding hair line for one thing, and I think he had some other non-standard elements to his appearance.
Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie: A romance novel with a larger heroine. And the guy doesn’t want her to change. Hallelujah! The hero is conventionally attractive.
Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers: Another conventionally attractive heroine. The hero, however, is known as Beast, which is a pretty accurate descriptor of his appearance; he’s huge and scarred.
Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay: The blind heroine’s been told all her life that she’s an overgrown mutant, and the love interest is Monstrous.

Of Beast and Beauty

Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson: Not sure about the heroine, but her boyfriend is a typical teenage boy, pimples and all.
Cold Hands, Warm Hart by Jill Wolfson: The love interests meet in the hospital where they’re waiting for organ transplants. Needless to say, neither one’s looking too great what with being in the process of dying.

Cold Hands, Warm Heart
The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson: The heroine is overweight for all of the series, though she does slim down some. The hero has a mustache in the first book, but he does shave it and become the epitome of hotness in book two.
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta: The Lumatere Chronicles has relatively attractive people, but they’re often not at their best. In Finnikin, Evanjalin is bald from her time as a nun. Oh yeah, and she doesn’t talk. Then there’s Quintana later on, who’s reviled by the kingdom. She’d probably be pretty if it weren’t for the crazy light in her eyes, but that’s not going anywhere. This series is sort of on the border of counting, but they’re at least unique.

Finnikin of the Rock - Melina Marchetta
Dairy Queen - Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock: DJ’s athletic and not really into worrying about appearance. Definitely not model pretty.
45 Pounds by K.A. Barson: Overweight teen heroine. She gets healthier, but never slims down to the societal ideal.
Croak by Gina Damico: Lex is very much not your typical girl, and not interested in fitting society’s ideas of beauty. Plus, when you enter the town of Croak, something about its energies give everybody weird hair and creepy skeletal-looking hands.
Adorkable by Sarra Manning: Hero is stereotypically gorgeous (but a POC!), but heroine is not. Jeane dyes her hair weird colors, wears odd clothing, and is not as thin as society prefers. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

45 Pounds (More or Less) - K.A. Barson

Most, if not all, of these books totally bring the swoon. It CAN be done. Let’s have more of this, yes? Please?

What do you guys think? Do prefer preternaturally pretty main characters or do you wish there were more books like these? Do you have any recommendations for me?

21 responses to “The Beauty in Ugly, or, Thoughts on Rereading Eleanor & Park”

  1. Meg says:

    Post soundtracks are a great idea, FYI.

    The way Eleanor and Park’s relationship unfolds is amazing, I remember reading it and feeling like I was plugged directly into some sort of zingy but non-harmful electric current (what is it with me and electrocution today?) It so deliciously slow burn. And the way they come to see each other as beautiful and perfect? My heart’s all a-flutter just thinking about it.

    Sidebar, Emma Stone and her one-liners in Crazy, Stupid, Love continue to be one of my favorite things.

    “I’m going to be totally honest here and say that, when it comes to television and movies, I do want my heroes and heroines to be gorgeous, because that takes a mediocre show and makes it worth watching because eye candy.” <<God, yes. There are so many shows I watch just for the pretty, shiny things to look at.

    I completely agree with your desire for realism in books. My favorite part of my literary ships are the details and the things that make the relationships unique. They have nothing to do with physical appearance and everything to do with character quirks because that's where the fun and magic lives.

    "The only kind of perfect I want to see is imperfect people who are perfect for one another, because they’re so compatible." << PREACH. Also, fun fact, I just watched Love Actually. It still turns me into a gooey ball of love is beautiful. It's one of few exceptions to my Grinch-like approach to Christmas stuff.

    I love that not only was Levi unconventionally attractive, but that Cath loved that about him. Her attraction to his eyebrows was hilarious.

    I've probably read Bet Me at least 10 times, the spine is so cracked you can barely read it. It was a go-to pick-me-up read for the longest time.

    It has just occurred to me that if I comment on every ship you point out here, this comment will turn into a novel.


    I think Lumatere counts because even though the cast is fairly physically attractive when they're cleaned up, they're all flawed people who are learning and growing and finding ways to fit together beyond their differences, etc. It's kind of the same thing but from a different angle.

    Yay for Croak and Adorkable shout outs. They're both on my list of favorite ships. I need to write this list down, for science or something.

    Oh look, this comment turned into a novel anyway. Well, that's what happens when you write such a fantabulous post. Seriously, I love it.
    Meg recently posted…Review: Croak by Gina DamicoMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Ha, I will endeavor to have more discussion posts with a soundtrack. :-p

      Awwww, so the E&P stuff is sad now, because Steph just read it and did not like it. Though I think it may have been the audiobook. When she didn’t like their voices, I told her to stop, but alas. Whatever, I’ve read it twice and I love them and their relationship.

      Emma Stone is amazing. You know how we were talking about our 20s and how I’m failing them? I want to be like Emma Stone. She’s so damn cool.

      So many. The primary example is Gossip Girl. As a show it was pretty much horrid, but I loved it because THE PRETTY.

      Love Actually is fabulous, and it is one of the acceptable Christmasy things. I am weird, though, in that, for the most part, the Christmas stuff I like I’ll listen to or watch year round and the rest of it is acceptable in a 24 hour window around the opening of presents.

      His “pornographic” eyebrows. Loved that.

      Ha, I actually don’t own Bet Me and have only read it once. I need to fix that. I think I’ve read Welcome to Temptation three or four times. It’s my most read, because it was my first one. Also, I can’t speed read like some people.


      Also, Evanjalin and Finnikin fell in love before she cleaned up and the same goes for Froi and Quintana, who I doubt ever REALLY cleans up.

      My top ships list would be absurdly long. I live for shipping. I almost ship more than Fedex.

  2. Kim W. says:

    In life I’m not attracted by the typical “hot guy” who everyone around me seems to be attracted by. I like unconventional pretty. Maybe that’s just me, or at least it is in my circle of friends. So I kind of understand how you describe what Park felt at first about his feelings for Eleanor (I haven’t read the book yet, but after reading this discussion I really feel like I should) because I’ve had kind of the same thing in high school. And I wasn’t just ashamed if my friends would find out, but also my family members! I remember one time when I was around 16 I had this huge crush on one of my co-workers and my mom knew (I wouldn’t shut up about him to anyone). So one day I wound up at my then place of work with my mom, and while it wasn’t a working day for me, it was for him. So of course my mom HAD to know who it was and she literally said: “Oh, wait it’s not HIM right?” And oh yeah, of course it was haha. So I said “NOOOOOOOO, not him.” Safe to say, that didn’t work out.

    So yes, I wish there were more books like Eleanor & Park and know I must read this book soon. And yeah, tv shows are completely different. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed shows like The Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars half as much if the people weren’t pretty to look at lol. So I don’t mind it that apparently the whole towns of Rosewood & Mystic Falls are full of pretty people. But in books, I look for a little realism, at least now and then. I think paranormal books are the worst. I have enjoyed reading some paranormal romance books, but it does feel like EVERY paranormal heroine is super pretty but doesn’t think so (I mean, it’s pretty normal for teen girls to feel that way, but not EVERY girl does and not EVERY girls is super pretty despite what she feels herself) but she does have two super hot guys pining for her.

    But yeah this is not just the case in paranormal books, also contemporary. I just really want some realism in my reading, people are different, I wish it was shown more in books (also more POC characters). Anyway these where my thoughts, apparently I had a lot of thoughts about it lol.
    Kim W. recently posted…Review: Monstrous BeautyMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      My type doesn’t tend to be quite the typical sort of pretty either, since I like them a good deal nerdier. And, yeah, I never wanted anyone to know about anything. Mostly I don’t like people knowing personal details about me. I could totally imagine eloping rather than having some sort of big to do of a wedding.

      Right. There are kinds of pretty where you might not feel pretty, but if you’re the most popular, crushed on girl in school, then wouldn’t you have some idea you were pretty, unless perhaps your parents programmed you with self-hatred?

      More POCs, yesssss.

  3. I loved Eleanor and Park for exactly that reason. Emotional depth in a romance is so much better and more realistic than a pretty person finding another person who’s just as pretty as they are. And thanks for all the suggestions. I just added a bunch of books to my TBR list.
    TRQ @ We’re All Mad Here recently posted…Super Six Sunday #2My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Pretty people falling in love would be fine if I didn’t feel like most of the time the authors don’t bother to set up the emotional resonance of the relationship because the surface is easier. I need to feel the bond so I get the butterflies and the swoons along with the MC.

  4. “I’m going to be totally honest here and say that, when it comes to television and movies, I do want my heroes and heroines to be gorgeous, because that takes a mediocre show and makes it worth watching because eye candy. With books, though, I really prefer the realism.”

    THIS, exactly this! Yes, it’s far better to watch at someone like Ryan Gosling in a TV show, but having a realistic character in a book is so much more interesting to me. I love it when the characters are flawed and imperfect. It’s not only easier to connect with them, but it’s realistic and it gives them more space to develop. One of the best examples you’ve given must be Beast in Dark Triumph. He conquered my heart with his beautiful inside. I love books with this message, because it’s not all about how someone looks. Falling in love with someone’s soul is the best thing, because that’s something constant 🙂
    Mel@thedailyprophecy recently posted…Review 216. Aimee Carter – Pawn.My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      It’s shallow, but I like the pretty. There are a few shows I like without eye candy, but it’s a lot harder to keep my attention and the plot needs to be super strong.

      Plus, especially in YA, I think that authors are setting teens up for unrealistic standards and disappointment. I know that all the romance I read when I was a teen gave me expectations that will never be fulfilled. And, while I know better now, I still think it sucks that what I dreamed of isn’t possible, you know?

  5. Ellis says:

    So let me get this straight. Hector is ugly because he has a moustache? That’s it? I mean, I can’t think of any moustachios I find attractive right here and now (God, an image of Ron Swanson just came up and no), but if that’s all…

    But I agree. While there were a lot of beautiful girls going to my high school, that wasn’t so much the case with guys. Maybe it’s because they go through puberty later and are often still gangly i high school. I’ll take realistic romance over fantasies every day. Maybe that’s why I often like a love/hate dynamic. When it’s done well, there comes a point where they start to see “redeemable” – for lack of a better word – traits in each other and make an effort to get to know the other better. However, love/hate tends to be resolved by instalust and its siblings, so this isn’t always true.

    Eh, not a Gosling fan. He doesn’t pull off the scruff.

    I also think I might have a somewhat peculiar standard when it comes to beauty. It’s something I’ve noticed when talking to friends. Some of them easily say someone is butt ugly when I honestly don’t see it. I don’t think that’s addressed enough when it comes to beauty in fiction. Not everyone has the same ideas. No, when they are gorgousbeautifulstunning, they are objectively so. That’s not how it works.

    I like your thoughts.

    Please check out mine here:
    Ellis recently posted…Review – DreamfeverMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Technically, the post was about people not being gorgeous and I do think that mustaches are not in the current standard of beauty. So. It counts. Also, it’s funny. WHY DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND MY BRAIN, ELLIS? I don’t even know who you are anymore.

      Girls are just generally better looking than guys, I think. And yet I’m straight. A waste, I suppose. Oh well. High school boys are super gangly and everyone has pimples sometimes. EVERYONE. Bad clothes, too. You haven’t necessarily figured out yet how to dress for your body type rather than by buying the popular clothing.

      I’m not really a Gosling fan anymore, but I thought he was super hot in the notebook. The prettiness of McAdams and Gosling was all that made that movie watchable.

      Ha, totally not an objective thing, which is why I tried to emphasize society’s current standard, which totally varies. This is also why the 2005 P&P pisses me off so much. I mean, Keira Knightley would have been pretty ugly by their standards because she’s far too thin to be appealing by what they admired at that time. But, since she’s the CURRENT standard of beauty, they cast her. *rants*


      • Ellis says:

        Girl, you know I understand your brain. You also know how late it was on my side of the pond when I finally posted this comment. I was (not) functioning on vampire hours. Don’t give me an identity crisis by proxy.

        I was more mocking the societal idea of moustaches making somewhat not gorgeous, so in a way, I was completely understanding your brain, because you were doing the same.

        I think so, too. Maybe because, generally speaking, they spend more time on their appearance? Oh, one of the things that can make a guy instantly unattractive is a bad hair cut. It’s weird, but it has often happened that I was completely lusting over someone and then they got their hair cut and I was done. Shallow, I know.

        The Notebook. I always fall asleep while watching it. See. I’ve kind of always known I’m the least romantic person around but this just proves it, I think.

        Ooh, spot-on about Keira Knightley. Had she lived in Austen’s time, her family would have starved to death. No need to lie. You check out my thoughts all the time.

        I swear, one day I’m going to write a thoughtful and actually constructive comment on your blog. BUT TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY. (So I started this comment way earlier and it may seem like I’m recycling things you said to me today, which is not the case, but it’s hard to convince you of my sincerity because who knows after all.)
        Ellis recently posted…Review – DreamfeverMy Profile

        • Christina Franke says:

          Well, moustaches were the style of a generation or two above mine (think Tom Selleck), so perhaps it’s a sense of rebellion. I don’t know. I don’t want them to come back though. Let’s go with the stubble beards. I like that style.

          That is so true. There have been a number of shows where I was like “ugh, this guy is so gross. Why does he have an acting career?” and he gets a haircut and I’m like “WELL HELLO THERE.” One case where that happened was Eric on True Blood. He cannot rock long hair.

          Oh, I don’t like The Notebook at all. I don’t think it’s romantic at all. I just think the actors are pretty.

          Seriously, the rich guys would look at her and be like “oh snap, they can’t afford to feed their kids.” The Lydia and Kitty were absurdly thin too. I did like the Jane better than 1995 Jane, but only because of her pretty face. In the BBC one, it’s like, HER?

          How is this not thoughtful?

  6. MUCH LOVE FOR THIS POST. I’m not going to go into details why I loved E&P so much because you hit the nail on the head. Rowell really isn’t afraid to show how human nature in her books and to write about realistic characters. Her debut, Attachments is targeted as Chick-lit, but I absolutely loved it! The male MC isn’t the perfect “ideal guy” and it’s just an amazing book. If you haven’t read it, I’d check it!
    -Scott Reads It!
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    • Christina Franke says:

      One of my favorite things is that Eleanor and Park aren’t idealized. They both have shitty thoughts about each other sometimes. It’s not an immediate “I would die for you.” like in so much PNR. Park doesn’t want to risk his reputation by being nice initially, and it takes a long time for him to shed that completely. So much more realistic that way!

      I own Attachments, but haven’t read it yet, because then there would be no more Rainbow Rowell available to me!

  7. YES.

    “The books and characters and romances I’m finding more memorable are the ones that differ from the set pattern of a beautiful person falling in love with another beautiful person. For one thing, in these novels, there tends to be a much greater focus on characterization, because there HAS to be. It’s easy for an author to say that the hero looks like Ryan Gosling circa The Notebook and leave us swooning, but more difficult if he’s got pimples and gangly limbs.”

    Yes. This reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. A lot of YA authors cite P&P as one of their favorites, but what about the part where Darcy basically says she’s not handsome enough? What about the part where Elizabeth’s like HELL NO. It’s not just “hate-turned-love” but I don’t even think you’re attractive turned into attraction into love. Something that’s especially frequent in high school since few of us looked our best then.

    “…But I’ve found this trend to be the case even in more hard-hitting, dark novels where realism is entirely the point, such as If You Find Me. I’m going to be totally honest here and say that, when it comes to television and movies, I do want my heroes and heroines to be gorgeous, because that takes a mediocre show and makes it worth watching because eye candy. With books, though, I really prefer the realism.”


    And thank you for this post. You’ve given me some great recommendations to check out. Also, I love that you used the gif from Crazy Stupid Love. Best line of the movie.
    Christina @ Christina Reads YA recently posted…What Makes a Series AwesomeMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Exactly. Elizabeth is pretty, but she’s not the ideal. She’s the sort of pretty that grows on you over time as you get to know her sassy intelligence. I’m not actually saying that all heroines need to be ugly, but I’d like to see a variety. Even being tolerable is different from being the most gorgeous girl in the world.

  8. *Collapses over Love Actually gif* *recovers* *Writes down all the books*

    I love realism in fiction when it comes to the appearance of the characters – it makes me love them more, and I’ve never really been one to swoon over boys in books anyway. It’s all about the personality, my friend!

    Great post, I am definitely going to check all of these out. Especially E&P – I should get on this!
    Kat (AussieZombie) recently posted…Review: Survive by Alex MorelMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Hurrah! You should check out all the books. Btw, Dairy Queen is awesome sauce on audio, and you know you trust me because Golden Boy.

      E&P is better in print. But yes read all the things!

  9. THIS POST!!!! I’ve been thinking about this a lot. God knows how much I wished all the guys in the world looked like Ryan Gosling. Sadly, that’s a fantasy, one which most likely won’t ever happen. Being a reader, I do value the authenticity of the story, especially if it’s contemporary. I like it when people are flawed but it’s okay for fictional characters to be dreamier than the usual. It’d be nice to read more about people who don’t have it all (in the looks department) but even if a book presented an unbelievably beautiful character, I’d be fine as long as they aren’t stereotypical. I’ve loved some amazing characters who are presented as gorgeous (Hello to Etienne St. Clair and his perfect hair) but really, I think it’s their disposition and wit that really got me attracted to them. So I think, no matter how the character is presented, ugly, great biceps short, pale, full lips, no pretty eye colours, I’d still value the character’s personality over their looks. That of course is different for TV and actual life, because I do like looking at really pretty people. Shallow but true.
    Hazel @ Stay Bookish recently posted…{Blog Tour} Review: Sam Cruz’s Infallible Guide to Getting Girls by Tellulah Darling + GiveawayMy Profile

  10. Chantelle says:

    Amazing post!! I completely agree with you in that the beauty of books doesn’t lie in insta-love, or model-perfect characters. I noticed this in particular in the new adult genre. Every single hero is ripped with tattoos and every girl is so stunning that they fall in a weird, passion filled romance that doesn’t really come across for that exact reason. However, with the success of books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park who have unconventional characters and romances, I think publishers are going to start taking notice and shift their focus to novels with unique and realistic voices. Thanks for your recommendations too, so many of them are on my to-read list but now I’m definitely more curious about them.
    p.s. LOVED your Love Actually gif. Such a great movie!
    Chantelle recently posted…Sci-Fi Month: Interview with Dan WellsMy Profile

  11. Molli says:

    Ahhh THIS POST. I am so super glad you wrote it, Christina. Things in here NEED TO BE SAID, loudly and often.

    Attractiveness in YA has lost so much of its meaning through the sameness of the bulk of the characters.

    YES. YES. YES. *hiss* We talked a little bit about this the other day but these books are setting impossible standards for beauty and making people think that is the norm. NO IT ISN’T. Give me characters with hair that won’t behave, or acne problems, or characters who have more weight to lose than the 10 lb shuffle. Give me guy characters who are pleasant looking but not drop-dead-gorgeous. (This is something I need to work on in my own writing.) Give me all of this and SHOW READERS IT IS HEALTHY.
    Molli recently posted…Review: Paranormalcy by Kiersten WhiteMy Profile

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