Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

2006, Atria
406 pgs
Rating: * (Outstanding)

First Sentence: It was November.

Reason for Reading: Several booklovers from online reading groups I belong to have been talking about this book since it came out and comments like, “best of the year” made the novel even more irresistible. My resolve not to buy books in hardback (with exceptions) made me hesitate in picking up a copy of The Thirteenth Tale. Fortunately, my husband was listening when I mentioned my interest in this gem of a book, and I found it under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

From the Publisher: A compelling emotional mystery in the timeless vein of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, about family secrets and the magic of books and storytelling.

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself - all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.

Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to Yorkshire to meet her subject - and Vida starts to recount her tale. It is one of gothic strangeness featuring the March family; the fascinating, devious and wilful Isabelle and the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline.

Margaret is captivated by the power of Vida's storytelling. But as a biographer she deals in fact not fiction, and she doesn't entirely trust Vida's account. She goes to check up on the family, visiting their old home and piecing together their story in her own way. What she discovers on her journey to the truth is for Margaret a chilling and transforming experience.

Comments: When the buzz around a book grows louder and louder, I generally have one of two reactions. I turn and run in the other direction or I run right up to the book and dive right in. It took me a long time to come around to reading The Kite Runner and the Harry Potter novels, all of which I could kick myself for taking so long to get to. However, I could hardly wait to dive into Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and had Christmas not been right around the corner, my husband’s concern about my buying books for myself obvious, I fought the strong desire to do just that.

Still, once I had the book in hand, it was with some reluctance that I chose to read it almost immediately. I expected great things from The Thirteenth Tale and this alone caused me concern. I try not to raise my expectations for any book. The higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment can be.

As much as I would like to place the blame on my husband and a couple of fellow bloggers (Carl V and Heather) who encouraged me to take the plunge, in truth, it didn’t take much prodding at all. I was eager to read this book, to see if it held the magic that it had for so many others whose opinions I have come value.

And a magical experience it was! I lost myself immediately inside the pages of this intriguing and fascinating tale. Diane Setterfield is an amazing storyteller. The novel held me captive right from the beginning and kept me reading into the wee hours of the morning to reach the end. The book is very quotable and I think many voracious readers will find themselves identifying with Margaret Lea and her love for books. One of my favorite parts is when Margaret Lea talks about needing to make sure she is in a secure position before settling in to read or else the book will sweep her away into another world and she’ll forget where she is. She recounts how once, as a child, she fell down the stairs after losing herself in a book. How many of us have similar tales we could share about the way books draw us in so completely?

Margaret Lea is the guide that leads us through the many stories that fill the pages of The Thirteenth Tale. Although much of the focus is on best selling author Vida Winters’ own story, a story she has held close to her vest all her life, Margaret Lea’s story is just as significant. The two stories were similar in many ways, and different in just as many others.

Margaret Lea has gone through life as background, blending in and trying not be seen for so many years. She likes to bring to life the stories of the long forgotten, not wanting to draw attention to her own story.

Vida Winters, best selling author, has spent all of her adult life lost in her writing, surrounded by her characters, creating her own past when pressed about it, while at the same time suppressing the truth, separating herself from who she used to be.

At one point during the novel, Ms. Winters points out, “Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.” [pg 58] And the same applies to who we become; our pasts and our families are a part of us, with us, no matter how much we try to push them away or separate ourselves from them.

There is so much I could say about this novel, so many details I want to reveal . . . However, this is a novel that is better experienced by reading it. I ate up the references to Jane Eyre, one of my favorite novels, which are woven throughout the book. It is a complex story, full of surprising twists; and yet as the truth is revealed, piece by piece, there were several “Ah ha” moments in which I found myself going back over what I knew so far and realizing it was all there to see—it all made sense, each of the puzzle pieces falling into place.

Favorite Part: There were so many parts of this book I could list as my favorites. Two I mentioned above in my review.

There were the little joys: the prescription Dr. Clifton gave Margaret Lea. And Aurelius’ visit and the birthday cake.

Another is when Vida is describing to Margaret Lea how real her characters are to her, how much of their lives she sees and experiences: “My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’” [pg 113]

“’When one is nothing, one invents. It fills a void.’” [pg 115] - Spoken by Vida Winters about her writing.

“A storyteller. A fabulist.” [pgs123] – Although not outwardly significant, this one caught my attention because of the word “fabulist", a favorite word of mine.

“’Miss Lea, it doesn’t do to get attached to these secondary characters. It’s not their story. They come, they go, and when they go, they’re gone for good. That’s all there is to it.’” [pgs 191-192] – How many times am I guilty of getting caught up in the lives of the secondary characters?

“All my unsaid words went back to wherever they had been all of these years.” [pg 221] – I love this sentence.

“Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes—characters even—caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.” [pgs 290-291] - A wonderful quote and a feeling I've experienced many times.

“I pushed my pile of papers to one side, stroked Shadow and stared into the fire, longing for the comfort of a story where everything had been planned well in advance, where the confusion of the middle was invented only for my enjoyment, and where I could measure how far away the solution was by feeling the thickness of pages still to come.” [pg 306] - There are times when I seek out this kind of comfort from the books I select to read too.

Miscellaneous: I joined the Yahoo Group, BookiesToo because I heard the group was reading and discussing The Thirteenth Tale the beginning of January. There I’ll be able to talk about the book to my heart’s content! To top it off, I've found myself in the position of leading the group discussion. How did that happen??

It slipped my attention until recently that another Yahoo Group I belong to, On The Porch Swing, is also discussing the book in January, beginning January 15th. It will be interesting to see how each group takes to the book.

Head on over if you want to join in. Both are friendly and enjoyable groups. The more the merrier!


  1. WOW! What a great review. I'm so happy to read that you enjoyed it so much. I'm very much like you in that when a book is hyped up I either run the other way or wait awhile before reading it and then kick myself for waiting so long. I've been enjoying more and more the reviews of other book bloggers as I am much more like to take the advice of a 'friend' about a book.

  2. Good lord! You had me on the edge of my seat with all the build up. I was thinking, 'oh crap, she ended up not liking it'. So glad I was wrong and that you fell in love with it as I did! My review was gushing and glad to see that I am in good company!

  3. Hey there! I'm already a member of Bookies Too!! (but I haven't read this book yet, and need to get my rear in gear!) Thanks for the great review!!

  4. Thanks Heather, Carl and Lisa!

    Heather ~ I agree with you there. I find that I trust a lay person's opinion of a book more than I do a professional critic. I'm also learning whose taste and views match up with mine more often than not and that helps when I'm looking for recommendations.

    Carl ~ I did not mean to fool you. LOL I was really worried that all the praise would ruin the book for me. I actually hadn't read your review until after I finished the book and had written out my own. I found myself nodding and agreeing with every point you made.

    Lisa ~ If you find you like the book, it will probably go fast for you. At least that's how it was for me.

  5. Thanks for visiting my blog!!! I see the Stones From the River is one of your favorite books! Me too!! Love that book! Go Zwiergs!!!

    Looking forward to exploring your blog! I have The Thirteenth Tale, but have not read it yet!

  6. I also found The Thirteenth Tale under the Christmas tree. I'm only about halfway through it but it's already shaping up to be one of the best books I've read in ages.

  7. Hello! I just ran across your blog and thought I'd drop a comment. I am also wary of books that are raved about by a bunch of people, but I was not disappointed by the THIRTEENTH TALE. I can't remember when I have had such a satisfying read!

  8. Hey I just read your review and you summary on Ms.Lea. This book is great for book lovers, but for a senior in high school it was very boring for a summer read. Maybe during the school year it would have been better and the teacher could have went along wit us and helped clear up the confusion. For most of the time I was like "What is going on??" When all the good stuff started happening like the story of the fire and Aurelius discovered the secrets of his life THEN was i actually interested. It takes a very mature person to read and understand everything in this book the first time. It's a pretty good book just not for anyone under 30 lol!!


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