What (I Think) Really Happened in Tana French’s In the Woods

in the woods

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

This is the second best book I’ve ever read. (The first best is Tana French’s follow-up novel, the Likeness–I’ll get around putting my love for that beautiful novel into words at some point I review that here).

The fact that this book has anything fewer than five stars on Goodreads and Amazon is one of the main reasons I tend to disregard reviews from people whose tastes I don’t know when deciding what to read next. This book is perfect: the characters, the beautiful sentences, the plot, the themes. Perfect, I tell you.

The premise is chilling and engrossing: In 1984, three children disappear into the woods outside a suburb of Dublin. Hours later, only one little boy is found, with blood on his shoes and slashes on his back and no memory of the previous hours. The other two children are never found. Twenty years later, Rob Ryan, the found boy, is a detective, investigating the murder of another child in those same woods. And though the mysteries are well-spun yarns, it’s the characters that get to me in this novel, especially how beautifully drawn Rob and his partner Cassie are. That, and the beautiful sentences.

Reasons to read this book:

1. The aforementioned beautiful sentences:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palette, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.

2. The voice of your narrator, Rob Ryan:

The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

3. The relationship between Rob and his partner, Cassie:

The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.

4. Its ability to maintain its sense of humor through its devastating, sometimes gruesome story:

I recently found a diary entry from college in which I described my classmates as “a herd of mouth-breathing fucktard yokels who wade around in a miasma of cliché so thick you can practically smell the bacon and cabbage and cow shit and alter candles.” Even assuming I was having a bad day, I think this shows a certain lack of respect for cultural differences.

5. The sheer truth of its sentences:

We think about mortality so little these days, except to flail hysterically at it with trendy forms of exercise and high-fiber cereals and nicotine patches. I thought of the stern Victorian determination to keep death in mind, the uncompromising tombstones: Remember, pilgrim, as you pass by, As you are now so once was I; As I am now so will you be…. Now death is uncool, old-fashioned. To my mind the defining characteristic of our era is spin, everything tailored to vanishing point by market research, brands and bands manufactured to precise specifications; we are so used to things transmuting into whatever we would like them to be that it comes as a profound outrage to encounter death, stubbornly unspinnable, only and immutably itself.

6. The incredible themes, and I think this is what a lot of people who posted negative reviews missed. They’re somewhat subtle, but so finely spun once you find them. I can’t get into them without getting spoilery, so SPOILERS after the jump.

SPOILERY COMMENTS BELOW

A lot of people complain that the more interesting mystery–what happened to Peter and Jamie–wasn’t solved. However, after thinking long and hard about this book, I think I’ve figured out what the author was getting at. If you’ve read it and are still confused, read on for my take.

“In the Woods” is telling as a title, as this book is above all else about the loss of innocence that happens when moving from one world to the next, and what happens to those who get left behind, or stuck in between–people like Rob.

There are the physical woods, of course. Then there are the metaphorical woods. You could consider that no man’s land between childhood and adulthood to be such a place. Age twelve is the beginning of that strange in-between time. Adam, Jamie and Peter spend all summer frolicking in the woods as children, and the moment their childhood and innocence starts to slip away from them–witnessing the rape, the decision to run away, that kiss Adam plants on Jaime’s cheek–that’s when they stop being children, and cross over into something murkier. Jamie and Peter run straight into that woods never to be seen again–presumably they arrive on the other side, whatever that other side is. Adam never makes it there.

Jonathan Devlin talks about how he and his friends were trying to retain something that was slipping away from them as they grew up, as motivation for raping Sandra. (The awfulness of that justification should be clear, so I’m not getting into it here.) Rob mentions how if Katy had been a little older, she wouldn’t have bought the story about magic helping her with her dancing, and would never have set out for that shed. If Damien had been a little older or a little (okay, a lot) less naive, he would have seen Rosalind for what she was and never been drawn into the murder in the first place. And on the other side of the coin, though it’s Rosalind’s physical age that saves her, she has the calculating mind of a (seriously fucked-up) adult; that’s why she escapes unscathed, while Katy is dead and Damien’s spending however long behind bars. Every character is affected by their proximity to “the woods.”

And then there’s Rob and Cassie. Oh God. I wanted to punch Rob in the face for ruining what may be the best literary relationship I’ve ever read. I was intensely jealous of them the entire book–right up until everything fell apart.

They had the kind of relationship few friends of the opposite sex have in their thirties. Because as you get older, men and women just don’t maintain that kind of relationship–people couple off, life gets in the way. Relationships like that are very adolescent, in a way, and I miss them like crazy. Rob and Cassie managed to stay in that in-between place (more than friends, less than lovers) for far longer than most people–in their own private woods. And then when they (inevitably, IMO) sleep together, Cassie begins to move out of it–she, I think, would have been capable of taking that relationship to a more adult level. Rob, however, is not.

And that leads me to what happened to Jamie and Peter.

From the prologue:

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear … And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?

Who indeed?

From Rob and Cassie’s interview with old Mrs. Fitzgerald: “My mammy… she always said it was the pooka took them.” Then Rob says:

This took me by surprise. The pooka is an ancient child-scarer out of legend, a wild mischief-making descendant of Pan and ancestor of Puck.

Google Pooka (there, I just did it for you). From Wikipedia (italics mine):

According to legend, the púca is a deft shapeshifter, capable of assuming a variety of terrifying or pleasing forms, and may appear as a horse, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. No matter what shape the púca takes, its fur is almost always dark. It most commonly takes the form of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes.

Think about all the times Rob saw a dark animal darting across the road, in the clearing in the woods, dancing at the corners of his vision, the golden eyes with long lashes at the edge of the wood, the laughter echoing in the woods after the rape. You could be forgiven for thinking the character was just going crazy, but reread those passages and tell me that doesn’t sound like the pooka.

And then, the pooka/puca is an “ancestor of Puck”. Puck, in Shakespeare and elsewhere, is a representative of that “in-between place”. From somewhere on the internet:

His talent is for shape–shifting; he is a faerie who delights in living on the borderland between the human and faerie worlds.

Jamie and Peter were running into legend. Puck is out of legend. Tana French tells us what happens in the PROLOGUE of the book.

If you still have doubts, consider the close of the novel, when a construction worker gives Rob an odd artifact he found in the woods:

I tilted it to the light: a man, no more than a stick-figure, with the wide, prolonged antlers of a stag.

That, my friend, is Puck.

And Rob? Rob doesn’t see himself as the one who was saved from Puck/the pooka; he sees himself as the one who was rejected:

Sometimes I think about the sly, flickering line that separates being spared from being rejected. Sometimes I think of the ancient gods who demanded their sacrifices be fearless and without blemish, and I wonder whether, whoever or whatever took Peter and Jamie away, it decided I wasn’t good enough.

This echoes the quote at the beginning of the novel:

Probably just somebody’s nasty black poodle. But I’ve always wondered … What if it really was Him, and He decided I wasn’t worth it?

Some might not like how this revelation delves the story into mythology bordering on the supernatural. But I love it. Peter and Jamie were taken away by some form of the puca/Puck, and because Adam/Rob was not worthy, he was left behind, and that rejection turned him into who he is today–a man/boy incapable of moving into adulthood:

In ways too dark and crucial  to be called metaphorical, I never left that wood.

That’s what I think. How about you? I’d love a discussion about this!

God I miss this–spending all my time analyzing obscure texts. In college the best class I ever took was on French theater, where we’d spend hours discussing everything from Beaumarchais to Beckett. It’s honestly the reason I considered getting a PhD, just so those long classroom discussions in those Victorian-New-England-house-cum-classrooms could continue indefinitely.

But if there’s one thing this book has taught me it’s that that in-between place–in the woods–is a dangerous place to be. Sooner or later you have to cross over to the other side, or risk getting stuck there forever.

49 thoughts on “What (I Think) Really Happened in Tana French’s In the Woods

  1. On the very off-chance someone got introduced to the book much too late like I did after the TV series premiered, and then become obsessed with answers, I have a theory about who killed Peter and Jamie.

    I usually don’t read books by focusing on theories rather than themes, but I really felt like there was solid setup for an answer in this one. I don’t hate the supernatural undertones and the uncertainty of answers, I feel lilke they add a lot to the atmosphere + themes. Still, there’s one quote from Tana French that makes a literal supernatural explanation unlikely in my opinion, and it made me think there was a more conventional answer to the crime mystery. French says her choices in the end were either to “turn [her] narrator into a totally different person in the last chapter, in order to force in a solution” or to “do a deus ex machina and have someone else pop up with the solution.” She instead chose not to present the answer/solution, which gives me the impression the answer was presentable in the first place, and not that wildly unconventional. I don’t think Rob could have had a convincing epiphany about pooka or boogeymen. Or someone else on his behalf, like “Look which monster’s claw marks popped up in the Interpol database today,” or something.

    So, assuming the killer was human… We know Katy Devlin’s murder was unrelated to the 1984 disappearances, but we can still draw some narrative parallels between the two cases. Some narrative threads in Katy Devlin’s case were these:

    — Katy was on her way out. She was going to leave Knocknaree for boarding school. Rosalind didn’t want Katy to leave because she was jealous. This was the catalyst and the motive of her murder. She died, which in a sick & roundabout way meant that she stayed.

    — Children are stupid and their thought process works differently. They are only selectively rational. Cassie really wanted some marbles/marvels, and followed a molester when she was a kid, even if she was old enough to know better. Katy knew not to trust Rosalind, she had wised up to her games by then. She still went to meet Damien at the dig on Rosalind’s word, though, because she really wanted that dancer figurine.

    So, in the 1984 disappearances,

    — Jamie was on her way out. She was leaving Knocknaree and the boys for a boarding school. None of them wanted Jamie to leave. The children were in the woods that day, because they wanted to stay together. Perhaps Jamie’s impending departure was the catalyst here, and it all started with them trying to keep Jamie in Knocknaree.

    — Children can lower their defenses, even if they normally know better, and be stupid, when something they really want is at stake. In this case, what Adam, Jamie + Peter wanted more than anything else was to stay together. If someone offered to hide them in the woods, or to give them passage together, they would likely ignore all the warning bells. The abductor wouldn’t need to use force at first, just say they’d help the kids.

    We already know there is someone/something else in the woods with the kids, during the rape of Sandra, and when Adam, Jamie + Peter decide to run away. The youths and the kids hear that famous bird-like, pattering sound. Of course, Adam/Rob’s memory is dubious at best, Jamie + Peter aren’t around to describe what they heard, and the youths were all under the influence of something or another when they heard it. The most mundane description comes from Jonathan, though: “It sounded like a man–a young fella, maybe, around our age,” laughing.

    Interestingly, we hear about a man who would have reason to haunt the woods, and who has a history of making disconcerting sounds:

    — Rob vaguely remembers “Mad Mick, the local nutter, who … whispered to himself in an endless stream of small, bitter curses” and was taken away by the cops when he “started screaming, outside Lowry’s shop.” If it was a disturbance enough to call the cops in front of a shop, I can imagine it being straight-up terrifying when you’re high and alone in the woods.

    — Mad Mick had a connection to the woods—according to Peter, Mick “had done rude things with a girl and she was going to have a baby, so she hanged herself in the wood.” The woods make sense as a place of trauma/interest for this man.

    — I don’t know what exactly the “rude things” (in Peter’s words) would entail here, but the encounter with the girl could have been nonconsensual. Which would help place Mick as a laughing spectator on Sandra’s rape, and as the culprit in the 1984 abduction.

    — Also, Mad Mick was an adult man in 1984, and therefore probably physically more capable of overpowering Peter + Jamie, and then disposing of the two bodies, than the 12 year-old Adam/Rob himself.

    Mad Mick also fits very well with various expectations of, and predictions about, the killer:

    — Mrs. Fitzgerald thinks “Some mentaler threw [the kids] in the river. Some unfortunate fella who should never have been let out.” “Mad Mick, the local nutter” would fit the bill on that first count. We also know that he was previously taken away by the cops on a police car, but he could have been released by summer. Just in time for him to stumble on the kids and start watching them.

    — Detective Kiernan felt “the answer was right in front of them all along,” and had nightmares where he would see the culprit’s face, but completely forgot it when he woke up. Kiernan could have been the cop who took Mad Mick away outside Lowry’s. He also just might have crossed paths with him or heard about the incident. It makes sense for Kiernan to know just enough of the incident + this local figure “through osmosis,” for it to start itching at the back of his mind.

    “So Kiernan figured that, whatever happened, it must have been either in the wood or very nearby, otherwise how had Adam got back there? He thought someone–someone local–had been watching them for a while. The guy approached them in the wood, maybe lured them back to his house, and attacked them. Probably he hadn’t planned to kill them; maybe he tried to molest them and something went wrong. At some point during the attack, Adam escaped and ran back into the wood–which probably means they were either in the wood itself, in one of the estate houses that back onto it, or in one of the farmhouses nearby; otherwise he’d have gone home, right? Kiernan thinks the guy panicked and killed the other two children, possibly stashed the bodies in his house until he saw his chance, and then either dumped them in the river or buried them, in his garden or, more likely– there were no reports of unexplained digging in the area over the next few weeks–in the wood.”

    So, if I tried to fill in the blanks I would say,

    — The kids follow the sounds Mad Mick makes, confront him somewhere near the river. They talk about their problem, about how they are trying to hide from their parents, and Mad Mick offers to help them hide for a while.

    — Adam is the most mature and sensible, but also the most cowardly of the bunch. He isn’t as enthusiastic about running away from home, probably suspicious of the man and his offer from the start. His concerns get overruled, though, so he goes along with Jamie + Peter. Three of them follow the man.

    — White Cottage, the ivy-covered tower and the river are all close together, I’d say Mad Mick takes them to the cottage. They could have walked alongside the river, from where they met. One of the first flashes of memory Rob gets, features a red t-shirt-ed someone near the river, sort of on the way to the cottage. Jamie was wearing a red t-shirt on the day she disappeared.

    — Rob remembers Jamie in a garden with ivy, fountains, and statues, but knows this garden couldn’t exist in the woods-proper. It would be discovered by archaeologists or cops if it did. However, the cottage is private property owned by the family who built it in the 18th century. We never learn who lives there. It’s old enough to have a secluded garden with ivy-covered statues, though. And like the tool sheds in the other case, it might have gone overlooked by the initial search/investigation. McCabe and Kiernan focused on the woods.

    — Mad Mick could be a member of the family who owns the cottage, which would go a long way in explaining why he wasn’t a suspect in the investigation. But he might have just broken in, as well, and the authorities perhaps never realized he was released due to shoddy recordkeeping or communication.

    — For a while, the kids explore the garden and hangout. Mad Mick maybe starts asking for favors from the kids as recompense for his help, perhaps even requesting their personal and visibly personalized effects—Peter’s footballer watch, Jamie’s strawberry hairclip, Adam’s Mickey Mouse shoe.

    — Mad Mick escalates the situation. At some point Mick bleeds Jamie into Adam’s shoe, and I can see this taking the form of a very high-stakes game, maybe, with alternating turns between the kids, Mick holds their friends’ safety over their heads. The blood is probably Jamie’s. She and Adam are both A+, but Adam didn’t bleed that much, and Peter’s parents were both 0+.

    — After a while Adam can’t take it anymore and runs away, leaving Jamie + Peter behind at the cottage. Mick lunges at him with a four-tine garden rake or a similar tool. It makes sense with the rip pattern on the t-shirt, and Rob’s recollections of a garden, which would be the primary crime scene in this case.

    — Mick panics, eventually kills Jamie + Peter, dumps their bodies in the river at some point. Adam feels he betrayed his friends by leaving them behind. He’s also too scared to risk meeting Mad Mick again, so he hides in the woods rather than looking for help. “In ways too dark and crucial to be called metaphorical, [he] never [leaves] that wood.”

    I realize this gets a little fanfiction-y toward the end. I just really wish I could run an in-universe background-check on who owned that cottage, or have a chat with Mrs. Fitzgerald about this Mad Mick fella. But if there was ever a human killer or just a straightforward answer to the mystery in this story, I think it was most likely Mad Mick.

    On an unrelated note, as I was ctrl + f’ing my way through the book again, I noticed something interesting: If Rob hadn’t been too vain to wear wellies his first day on the dig, they would have discovered the original crime scene a lot sooner:

    “You’ll want wellies,” he told me, giving my shoes a sardonic look: … “Spares in the tools shed.”

    “I’ll be fine as I am,”

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  2. Finally someone has the same thoughts and theories as me on this. About halfway through the book is when I realized the Pooka was responsible for all the mischief in the woods! Everything you said but one other thing to make note of to more fully support this theory is the fact of all the names being Shakespearean in nature (Katy, Rosalind, Jessica)….and now Pooka, which drives from the Puck character. And then you have the Oberon (more Shakespeare !) on the coin at the end of the book!
    The Shakespeare “easter eggs” planted throughout this book are uncanny and no coincidence ! (and explains everything that goes “unexplained” throughout this story.

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  3. Way more nuanced than the theory I came up with, which is that Vera, Katys aunt killed Jamie & Pete to cover for her brother who participated in the rape. Vera, in this theory, may be as messed up as Rosalind, having witnessed the rape and laughed at it, then killed children to spare her brother. Ryan just happened to get away, and luckily for Vera he forgot everything. Vera did seem to be over involved with the DevLin family, and she could have even coached Rosalind in her fledgling sociopathic days.

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  4. Yes, but is Rob the Puka??? From a Jungian perspective, everything out there (images, fairy tales, etc.) are about us. And this sounds much like a shadow figure, clothed in dark, animal/instinctive– something we do not and cannot see. That’s why it’s a shadow. And Rob cannot see practically anything (from 12 and under, Rosalind!!!, Cassie!!! plus many other things. He is a horribly unreliable narrator, and he even tells us at least twice that he is a liar. I think this is a much more psychological novel than is apparent.

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  5. I’ve read all her books. Definitely my favorite author. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I really enjoy your ideas here.

    I actually enjoyed that the ending didn’t resolve everything. I love an ambiguous ending!

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  6. Thank you!! I needed closure and that makes sense…the “puka” (spelling sorry?) theory. The Dublin Murders is on Starz right now..I was gonna quit watching it if it ended like I had been reading her book did. (Without closure.) I need AN ENDING. I haven’t read the books…..just started watching the DM on Starz and was doing a bit of research on Tana French. I’ll read In The Woods now, now that it has a plausible ending. Again…THANK YOU.

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  7. I agree with the man boy thing as remember how he describes the best two years of his life? When he was living in that room doing nothing while Charlie was going to university and Charlie was disgusted with his lifestyle and the mess of a house? Plus he complains he has to rent a room from Heather (who Mother’s him in a lot of ways) as there is no place for him to afford and he is saving to move out when Cassie has her own apartment and moved there after him and presumably makes the same amount of money.

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  8. I totally missed the supernatural aspect of the book, but I was still angry that there
    Wasn’t a resolution for the main character. It was like a frustrating unsolved murder mystery that was driving me crazy. I felt sorry for Rob Ryan who truly needed to know what happened in those woods to allow him to move on more gracefully in life. I often wondered why French never mentioned he tried hypnosis to remember, but the trauma was too much for him to overcome. Either way, I’m still frustrated and hope she’ll finally resurrect Ryan again in another book to bring back his memories that fateful afternoon!

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  9. This is AMAZING. Thank you so much for this post! I read “In the Woods” last year and LOVED it but couldn’t QUITE put my finger on why the ending satisfied me even when it confused me and made me sad at the same time. You nailed it. I just finished reading “The Likeness” yesterday, and wow. Another 5-star book in my opinion, this time with no hesitation or confusion. Tana French is a goddess of literature. I am in awe of her.

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  10. I wish “In the Woods” had been recommended to me as literary fiction instead of as a murder/mystery/thriller. I read a lot of murder/mystery and my brain is expecting easy and fun. I’m very careful about when I pick up literary fiction – it’s a stretch for me and I do like to challenge myself, but in general I don’t find literary analysis entertaining.

    I couldn’t rate “In the Woods” and higher than a 2. I didn’t enjoy it. That said after reading your post I’ve thought of several people who I should recommend it too, because they probably would.

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  11. Just found this! Fantastic analysis. I was heading this direction in my thinking a few years ago when I read it. I even remember googling that stick figure with the antlers and realizing there was something supernatural or mythological about it. Many of my friends really liked the book but were so upset at the ending. I’m definitely going to send them this review. BTW, for another book where the ending is not wrapped up but there is highly suggested alternate ending, try The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Just keep remembering he tells you right from the start that he is an unreliable narrator!

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    1. Thanks! Yes I just can’t stand it when people say they liked this book then give it a low rating because of the ending. Tana French is my favorite writer and her books need to be more widely read. Thanks for the reco, my tbr stack is very high but I can always use more Tana French-like books 🙂

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  12. All I know for sure is that I need a sequel! I loved the book, but its absolutely maddening to not have a resolution.

    The memories of floating down the stairs and finding a secret garden are interesting to me.

    But the thing that’s the biggest clue to me is this dream:

    My dreams were uneasy ones, with a clogged, tainted quality to them. Something thrashing and yowling in a burlap bag, laughter and a lighter moving closer. Shattered glass on the kitchen floor, and someone’s mother was sobbing.

    Tana French. In the Woods (Kindle Locations 4772-4773).

    In the end I think that the answers is hidden in Robbs mind, and he is to broken to be able to search for them.

    I’ve only read The Likeness so far. Are there any other mentions of Cassie/Sam/Robb in later books? Anyone know if Tana French has said if she’s going to circle back to them?

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    1. Totally agree that the answer is in Rob’s mind.

      Interesting, that dream didn’t really stick out to me. I took it to mean Jonathan Devlin and his friends were doing something horrible to a dog or cat or something–didn’t really want to think too hard on that, but the “yowling” seems to suggest something animal. And the secret garden part is interesting too, as well as how Rob doesn’t accurately remember about picking on that other kid–it shows us all of his memories aren’t necessarily to be trusted.

      Read her other books! They don’t solve the mystery of “In the Woods” but the second book, “The Likeness” is told from Cassie’s point of view, and there’s a lot of Rob-Cassie stuff in there that I love. The Likeness is my favorite of all four (now five!) of her books. And the ending is a lot more definitive if that’s what you need.

      Tana French has said that she “hopes” to return to Rob one day since he was her first. Her fifth book just came out and there doesn’t appear to be any Rob Ryan in it, but we can only hope she loops back around to him someday 🙂

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    2. Ever read Picnic at Hanging Rock? There’s also a supernatural kinda allegory there as to where the girls went. Reading your interpretation of in the woods (which I just finished and went looking for posts like yours -thank you!) reminded me of picnic.

      I guess because it’s set up as a straight up murder mystery it’s hard to see there is an element of supernatural. It was painful to see Rob be so cliche in his response to Cassie after they slept together. Her getting engaged to Sam was a surprise but 8 guess it open d up to Cassie possibilities and Sam was there and open to it too. How many women have had the Rob experience?!

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  13. Thank you for clearing up the mystery of the coin! I read the book three years ago and have reread it many times since, and have never been able to come up with a likely scenario for what happened to Peter and Jamie. The thread of supernatural in this book is one of my favorite things, and I’m perfectly ready to accept a modern legendary occurrence as the cause of the disappearance. Found ya on Goodreads.

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  14. Just read your analysis after browsing the comments on goodreads, and I have to say, this really sounds like it could be what happened! At least now I feel like I have some sort of closure.

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