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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is a novel that tries hard to be a Gothic tale full of ghosts and melodrama, but light on the actual romance.  Margaret Lea receives a random letter from famed contemporary author Vida Winter, a woman who spends a lot of her time telling stories even to those journalists seeking her real-life story.  Lea is a bookworm extraordinaire, who helps her father in his antique bookshop, while her mother is hold up in her room every day barely engaging them.  Margaret is intrigued by Winter after reading a volume of short stories from her vast collection of books, titled “Thirteenth Tales of Change and Desperation.”  Upon meeting the woman and asking for three true things she can double-check for their accuracy, Margaret is sucked into her real-life tale by their own common bond.

What follows is the unraveling of Vida Winter’s real life story in a fragmented narration, which vacillates between Margaret’s journalistic digging and Vida’s fairy tale-like story.  Setterfield weaves a story of mystery that Margaret is determined to uncover even as she is haunted by her own family past.  There is a cast of secondary characters that are as colorful as Winter, but there are moments of too much detail that bog down the narration in Winter’s story and in Lea’s investigations and wanderings around Winter’s childhood home of Angelfield.

“Vida Winter’s appearance was not calculated for concealment.  she was an ancient queen, sorceress or goddess.  Her stiff figure rose regally out of a profusion of fat purple and red cushions.  Draped around her shoulders, the folds of the turquoise-and-green cloth that cloaked her body did not soften the rigidity of her frame.  Her bright copper hair had been arranged into an elaborate confection of twists, curls and coils.  Her face, as intricately lined as a map, was powdered white and finished with bold scarlet lipstick.  In her lap, her hands were a cluster of rubies, emeralds and white, bony knuckles; only her nails, unvarnished, cut short and square like my own, struck an incongruous note.”  (Page 43-4)

Despite this, Setterfield peppers her story with mist and ghosts, leaving the reader wondering if they are real.  The creation of Margaret and her back story, which is similar to Vida’s, is a bit contrived to propel the story forward and to engage Margaret in the investigation of Winter’s family.  Overall, the story within the story is the most engaging with incest, twins, and family secrets, and the story on which Winter builds her new life as an author.

“‘You think that a strange thing to say, but it’s true.  All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich organic mulch.  The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable.  Other people call it the imagination.  I think of it as a compost heap.'”  (Page 46)

The conclusion of the story is very anti-climatic with a wrap up of all the secondary and tertiary characters, which felt unnecessary, and there are elements of the story that remain unresolved.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is an intriguing novel that could have done better under a different structure to capture the reader’s attention fully, rather than allowing the story of Margaret to pull them out of the biography of Winter, who is the true protagonist of the novel.  While Margaret is a necessary evil in that she is picked by Winter to tell her story, and she must investigate the truth of it given the legend that surrounds Winter as an unreliable narrator, there are too many moments in which Margaret’s wanderings and indecision disengage the reader.

About the Author:

Diane Setterfield is a British author whose 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, became a New York Times #1 bestseller. It is written in the Gothic tradition, with echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

This is my 70th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

 

 

What the Book Club Thought (Beware of Spoilers):

Most of the members enjoyed the novel, including the male member who selected the book as his pick for the month.  Two of our members, including me, just felt the book was an OK read.  While most of us did not mind that Setterfield did not provide a concrete time or setting for the novel, one of our female members wanted to feel more grounded.  Several members mentioned an overuse of Jane Eyre and allusions to the classic novel, which was clearly a favorite of the character and the author.  Most of us enjoyed the story within the story that was about Winter’s childhood and family and thought it was the most engaging.  While most of us did not hate Margaret, most of us believed it was contrived to make her a match for Winter’s story.  One male member absolutely did not like Margaret at all.

Also touched upon in the discussion was the great feelings of Margaret for her deceased twin, a twin that she never met and never saw given that she died almost immediately after birth.  Some of us didn’t believe in this feeling and deep connection, but would have believed it more if she had grow up with her twin and she died after a bond had formed.

At one point during the discussion, one member wondered aloud if Winter would have chosen someone as inexperienced as Margaret to write her biography or if she would have chosen someone with more experience.  In most of our estimations, we believed that Winter was as eccentric enough to want some unknown writer write her biography rather than someone more experienced.  In a way, some of us agreed that she would prefer an unknown writer because she could more easily manipulate the story with someone less experienced.

The cutting of Isabelle randomly when her and Charlie begin to interact seems incongruous with a young girl who is doted on by her father.  While we could see that the kids were neglected in many ways and that the dishevelment of the house played a role in how they all interacted, it was a bit of a stretch that a well-loved young lady would automatically cut herself and enjoy inflicting pain without a catalyst/reason.  One member, in particular, wanted to know more about why she engaged in those behaviors and why the incestuous relationship began or was inevitable.  However, given that the point of view of the story is from a younger member in the household as it was told to her, this was not possible, which again calls into question the structure the author chose to use.

Overall a good book with some good elements and some not-so-good elements.

How I Rank Our Book Club Picks for the First Round:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  2. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  3. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
  4. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  6. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  7. Ashes by Ilsa Bick
  8. Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin S. Decker and Jason Eberl
  • Interesting review – I’ve always heard such glowing things about this one but that always seems to make me leery. It’s the very rare book that everyone will truly love. Nice to have some perspective.
    Lisa´s last blog post ..Bloggiesta – OLE!

  • Like Alyce, I consider this a favourite, and I’m disappointed that it didn’t ‘wow’ you. I love books that change paradigms near the end and make me rethink everything I thought I had figured out.
    Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis´s last blog post ..WE BOUGHT A ZOO by Benjamin Mee: Book Review

  • I read this one awhile ago and remember that I wasn’t blown away. I don’t remember much else… Guess that says something in itself.
    Julie P.´s last blog post ..Review: The Lighthouse Road

  • Ti

    I read this one when it first came out and I remember liking it a lot. I can’t remember much of it to comment on here, but I was looking for her next book for a long time and one never came.
    Ti´s last blog post ..Review: The Longest Way Home

  • It really did annoy me that I had no idea when the book took place. Still, I think I liked it more than you did. I just loved the writing style.

    • I liked the book, it just didn’t wow me.

  • My closest real life bookish friend loves this book. I may not be for me if there’s too much wandering in it.
    bermudaonion(Kathy)´s last blog post ..Wondrous Words Wednesday

    • I really had a hard time with Margaret’s character. I was more invested in Winter’s story and kept feeling pulled out by Margaret.

  • It’s fun to get a different opinion on this book (a favorite of mine). 🙂
    Alyce´s last blog post ..Best & Worst of Stephen King

    • I really did enjoy the book and there was a lot to discuss with the book club.

  • This book is on my TBR pile and it keeps calling to me as I pass by it. The quote about life being a compost pile for the author’s stories is very interesting. I’m really drawn to the fact that an author and bookworm are the main characters.
    Janel Gradowski´s last blog post ..Conversation with Thaisa Frank

    • I liked that aspect as well, though I have to say I liked the eccentric author best.