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The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

I don't review adult books very often. But I simply had to bring Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel to your attention. If you enjoy books, especially old-fashioned Gothic books like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, then you must read The Thirteenth Tale.

The Thirteenth Tale begins as the reclusive novelist Vida Winter summons Margaret Lea to her home in remote Yorkshire, and asks Margaret to write her biography. Margaret is somewhat skeptical of this author because a) she lacks the credentials of a real biographer, having merely written some obscure accounts by way of a hobby; and b) Vida Winter is notorious for lying to reporters about her past. However, Miss Winter eventually convinces Margaret that she plans to tell the truth. Miss Winter is dying, you see, and her story has been eating away at her for a long time.

The remainder of the book alternates between Miss Winter's tale, as told to Margaret, and Margaret's own independent investigation of the story. I listened to the book on MP3, and the production used two narrators, one for Margaret and one for Miss Winter. This worked quite well.

Miss Winter's story is a complex, Gothic tale encompassing twins, ghosts, mental illness, incest, loyal family retainers, a meddling governess, a foundling, and murder. The exact time-frame of the two stories is vague, but we know that Miss Winter's story takes place more than 50 years in the past, while Margaret's present seems not quite modern. Margaret, it turns out, has her own secret, one which helps her to understand Miss Winter better, but which tortures her, too.

The characterization in this book is excellent, both detailed and largely free of stereotypes. The alternation between the old story and the modern one keeps up the level of suspense. There are several clever parallels between the books that the characters read (most notably Jane Eyre) and the events that they experience. The writing is excellent, suspenseful yet lyrical, sometimes startlingly vivid. The evolving relationship between Margaret and Miss Winter is particularly well-done. I also enjoyed Dr. Clifton, who, in all seriousness, prescribes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle as a remedy for Margaret's temporary illness.

What makes the book especially appealing to the passionate reader is that both Margaret and Miss Winter love books, far more than they love most people. Margaret was raised in, and works in, an antiquarian bookstore. Miss Winter used books as a lifeline during a traumatic childhood. Many passages pay homage to the joy of books and reading. (In fact, this is a book that I wished I had been reading in print instead of listening to in audio format, because I would have liked to flag some of these passages.)

I highly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to any book lover. Please note that, unlike most of my reviews, this is an adult novel, not a children's or young adult book. There are some mature themes, and the plotting is quite complex. Young adults branching out into the adult fiction section could certainly handle it. However, although much of the story centers around a pair of young twins, this is not a children's book. What it is is a modern-day melodrama, filled with mystery, suffering, and the love of books.

Book: The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 416
Age Range: Adult
Source of Book: Download from

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