Reread Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Reread Review: The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by Atria on September 12, 2006
Genres: Gothic, Historical, Mystery
Pages: 406
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.

I first read The Thirteenth Tale during my sophomore year in college. A good friend recommended it and, though busy with schoolwork (question mark?) I devoured the novel. From the first page, I was absorbed into its pages and the mystery they held. The resolution struck me as a bit unlikely, but I still loved it and purchased a copy when I got the chance.

Upon revisiting the story, I was able to appreciate even more the incredibly beautiful prose of Diane Setterfield. Her language lilts and carries me away in a delightful way. Her writing is both complicated and completely natural, much like the classic authors she frequently references. The storyline was both improved and diminished by my return journey. How? Well, the twist, which is so astounding, I remembered. This also made some of the more long-winded sections drag a bit, although the sections on Vida Winter’s past always drew me in. At the same time, being able to really note all of the hints left for the reader let me appreciate the deft way in which the solution to the mystery was woven into the story. The plot seems less implausible with more attention paid to the details.

My only complaint is about the Postscriptum, which I found to be cheesy, overly fanciful and plain pointless. It really irritated me, because I loved the way the story resolved before I read it and then was unhappy with this new ending. Still, epilogues (or postscriptum, should one want to be fancy) have been the bane on the existence of many books (e.g. Crime and Punishment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and will likely continue to be. I, for one, will simply do my best to forget about the second ending. (And, knowing my memory, I shall triumph!)

Book lovers must read this! The early chapters of the novel are a love letter to reading that just made my heart soar with glee. Just make sure you sit down as you enjoy this one, because, as Margaret Lea cautions, “Reading can be dangerous” (4).

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