Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield
404 Pages
Finished 2/19/08






All children mythologize their birth…..So begins the prologue of reclusive author Vida Winter’s collection of stories, which are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist.

The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself–all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.

As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmaline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden, and a devastating fire.

Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida’s storytelling but remains suspicious of the author’s sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

I had a hard time in the beginning with this book. It took me a good 50-60 pages to really start feeling interested in it. One of the problems I had right off was that the time period was never clearly defined. For some reason, I had a hard time with that. I kept looking for clues–the use of a certain technology, for instance–that would tip me off, but the author never dropped any big hints. So, I had to be satisfied with knowing that Miss Winter’s storytelling was set in a time 60 years prior to the vague time period that she and Margaret currently lived in. I also had a hard time creating an image of Margaret in my mind. The summary mentions that she is a young woman, but beyond that, there isn’t much information in the way of describing her. Those factors, along with the fact that reading while nursing sick kids meant lots of interruptions, made it difficult for me to wrap my mind around the story in the beginning.

Once I got past the initial story of Isabelle and Charlie (their story was a bit confusing to me in the beginning….a lot was implied, and I was never sure if I took the implications correctly), Miss Winter’s storytelling really took hold of me. I was eager to keep reading to find out what happened next.

Near the end of the book, a twist takes the plot in a direction that I didn’t really see coming. Perhaps I was too caught up in trying to figure out the time period or building a picture in my head of some of the characters, but I felt that the author could have done a better job leading you in the direction she would eventually go–not giving the twist away prematurely, but crafting her tale in such a way that you could look back and clearly see clues that would fit into the ending. The clues that she did give felt somewhat disjointed to me during my reading. I knew they would have some significance later on, but they way they came into the story felt somewhat staged and out of place.

All that being said, I did enjoy the book. Once I got caught up in the story of Angelfield, it was hard to put down. When it came to Miss Winter’s storytelling, I was able to create vivid images in my head as the story unfolded. In spite of some of their oddities, I came to enjoy the characters and feel connected to them. It’s not one that I’d put on my top ten list, but I could easily recommend The Thirteenth Tale as an enjoyable read.

2008 Page Count:  1998


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