Dec 21, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

I did not expect to like this book so much. Partly because back when I first saw it all over the book blogs, there was some controversy surrounding it, and that kind of put me off. Also, I usually shy away from mysteries and ghost stories, but my assumptions of what makes up those genres were not exactly what I found here.

The Thirteenth Tale revolves around the mystery of a fictional writer's past. Vida Winter, a popular and prolific author loved by millions, always gives a different story when she is asked about her past. Not until she is elderly and in failing health does Winter intend to reveal her story, and she is selective about its recorder. Enter Margaret Lea, a young amateur biographer whose father owns an antique bookshop. Margaret has spent her life immersed in books, hiding a secret pain. Arriving at the famous author's reclusive estate, Margaret finds that not only is she slowly unraveling the story of Winter's origins, (and doing her own research on the side to confirm what she is told) but also coming to grips with a suppressed secret from her own past.

This is a somber story, full of dark family secrets. At one point I almost quit reading, because the implications of what happened long ago in the author's family was so distasteful to me. But I was fascinated by the speculation of how closely connected twins can be, and the downward spiral of mental instability passed on through generations, dragging the family into decay. And of course I loved the bookishness of it all, the examination of how stories are told, the interwoven threads of the different characters' lives, and the lovely way Setterfield uses language.

The ending of this book took me completely by surprise. I was expecting a revelation that linked all the parts of the story together, but not the one that surfaced! It made me want to go back and read the whole book again in a new light of understanding, and now I really wish another story would be written, from another character's point of view.... It's curious what other books The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of. The fact that it's about a scholarly woman assisting a recluse in an old mansion reminded me of The Fire Rose. The mysteries wrapped around the house and its extensive gardens through which girls wander brought to mind The Secret Garden. And the way the Angelfield estate fell into ruin following the decay of its family made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is definitely a book I'm going to read again someday.

Rating: 4/5                406 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
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SmallWorld Reads
Things Mean A Lot
Melody's Reading Corner
Trish's Reading Nook
An Adventure in Reading
A Striped Armchair
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Under the Dresser
Puss Reboots
Read Warbler


  1. I wanted to go back and read it again after everything was revealed too. And wow, I actually had no idea about the controversy! I'm glad you enjoyed it too, Jeane :)

  2. I have been a little reluctant to read this one after some comments about it. It must be concerning the "dark family secrets," although I don't know specifically what they are. Maybe I'll read it and discover someday!

  3. Golly! I was completely unaware of the controversy surrounding this book from a couple of years ago. I knew it was a book about a booklover and a writer and that was enough to encourage me to read it.

    I am glad you ended up liking it, Jeane. I really enjoyed this one, but then, it had so many of the elements I do like in a book.

  4. Anonymous12/22/2008

    I have this book in my TBR pile. I was wondering from reading other reviews if reading Jane Eyre is useful before reading this book. Would a person enjoy the book more if he/ she has already read Jane Eyre?

  5. Nymeth- my memory is rather foggy, but I think I actually received one of those contest emails myself, and it made me not want to even read the book! But then everyone said how good it was...

    Chain Reader- The dark family secrets almost made me quit reading, although they're really only hinted at and never explicitly described. I don't want to give anything away here, but if you really want to know, I'll send you an email about it.

    Literary Feline- Kinda shocking, isn't it? I was so glad to find this book had a lot in it for a booklover to love.

    Violetcrush- There are frequent references to Jane Eyre, and I know the story echoes Bronte's somewhat. It's been so long since I ready Jane Eyre I didn't pick up on all the references and symbolism, but that did not hinder my enjoyment of the book much. It did make me want to go back and read Jane Eyre again (and many other pieces of literature mentioned in The Thirteenth Tale).

  6. Anonymous12/22/2008

    I really enjoyed this one when I read it earlier this year.

  7. Anonymous12/31/2008

    Thanks for the link to the "controversy" discussion. I wasn't aware of it.

    It sounds like an intriguing book, and I appreciated this review.

  8. I knew about the controversy, and when I went to pick it up for Carl's Hallowe'en challenge, I wasn't in the mood and couldn't read it then. It's still on my TBR pile, especially after your review!!

  9. Yay! I've got this one on my list to read this year :)


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