The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Monday, October 17, 2011

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery
Publisher: Atria Books, 2006
Source: Borrowed from my sister-in-law
Read for: R.I.P. VI Challenge

Margaret Lea lurks around her father's used bookshop, immersed in dusty classics (the older, the better) and writing short works on obscure authors. When popular, contemporary author Vida Winter contacts her, requesting that she write her biography, Margaret is shocked for two reasons: first of all, she has never read anything by Winter (written too recently), and second of all, Vida Winter is known for inventing multiple stories about her past, none of them true. What Margaret doesn't realize is that when she accepts this request, she will not only learn the truth about Vida Winter's life, but the truth about her own as well.

I've had a surprisingly fantastic run of books lately. I guess I should read more creepy books, since most of what I am reading is for the R.I.P. VI challenge. The Thirteenth Tale was a sophisticated, enthralling read that left me eager to find out both Vida and Margaret's stories and in raptures over the beautifully constructed sentences.

Let's start with those sentences, shall we? Setterfield's writing style is just what I like. She is lavish with details, giving a full and beautiful picture of each scene, and yet sharp and witty, preventing the plot from being bogged down. The story is written from Margaret's perspective, and I loved her almost immediately - quirky, bookish, and decidedly charming. She seems to slam her finger on sensations I've grasped at but never fully been able to describe. For example.
All day I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. 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. 
Loved that.

The plot as well did not disappoint me, and was revealed in tantalizing little fragments that left me desperate for more time to read. Ms. Winter's tale is a bizarre and ghostly one, complete with broken taboos and spooky red-haired children. As Margaret teases and untangles this tale thread by thread, ghosts tend to make appearances, giving not only Margaret but me as well a jump and an accelerated heart rate. The "great reveal" at the end was a shock to me -- I had certainly not been able to unravel the mystery on my own. And while we are aware of Margaret's private sorrow for most of the story, the exact nature of that sorrow is also revealed more explicitly -- and meaningfully -- at the end of the story, leaving us with a satisfying and poignant ending.

This book also had the bonus factor of being centered around bookish and literary people (and therefore, people that I adored and identified with). One of the most priceless scenes occurs when Margaret falls ill, and the doctor asks her, in (pretty much) all seriousness, if she is a reader of the Brontes and Jane Austen, and if she does, in fact, read them over and over. When she nods, he prescribes her this: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages a day, twice a day, until end of course." So if my heart hadn't been won already, it certainly would have been won by that prescription. I think we all need a doctor like that.

I think this contemporary novel has special appeal for classics readers -- readers who crave depth and beautiful language with their moving stories and lovable characters. This is the perfect read for a fall or winter day with a blanket, a cup of something hot, and several uninterrupted hours. You won't regret it.

4.5 stars

Warnings: Domestic abuse, brief sensuality and innuendo, disturbing themes


  1. So glad you enjoyed this book! I recall reading it a few years ago and being completely swept away and wanting to read every book mentioned in the story. I cannot wait for whatever Ms. Setterfield brings next!

  2. What a great review, you've made me really want to read this book!

    Are you enjoying the Historian? It's one of my favourites.

  3. I loved loved loved this book! I've read it three times over the last 3 yrs lol and I read the Historian too and very much enjoyed that book as well!! You really are having a good reading cycle!!!

  4. I loved this one when I read it, and the ending surprised me too.

  5. Great review! I loved this book as well. I read it after reading Jane Eyre and also liked the references to classic books/authors. I think you are spot on when you state that classics readers will enjoy this book!

    I see you are currently reading The Historian. I read that one after The Thirteenth Tale too! I am eager to read your review of it! Hope you enjoy it!

  6. WHOA.
    All I knew of this book is the AMAZING COVER.
    But this sounds incredible. I had no idea. Onto the TBR, now.
    Thanks for making me aware!


    ps) That quote you used. Love it so, so much.

  7. I love the quote about reading, it's so true. And the books where you can't solve the mystery on your own are the best. I have to read this book. Great review!

  8. I'm planning on rereading this in January - as that will be the two-year anniversary of my blog.
    This is the book that I credit with launching my interest in classic literature so I think it will be fun to revisit it. I remember very little of the story (I read it about 4 years ago) so I'll come back and revisit your review too after I'm finished. :)

  9. I really loved this book too, I loved all the stories within stories and loved the mystery. I wonder if she will publish another book any time soon?!

  10. I loved this book! I keep saying I am going to reread it, but haven't managed to yet. I am glad you mostly enjoyed it!

  11. @Natalie - I completely agree! Now I really want to read The Woman in White. And I wish Diane Setterfield would write another book -- this one was fantastic!

    @Sam - If you enjoyed The Historian, I think you would really like this one! And I am enjoying it very much. It took me a few pages to get into, but now I can't put it down - which is a bit of a problem considering that it is almost 700 pages long!

    @DesLily - It is true, I have been having one of the best reading cycles I've had in a long time! I am loving The Historian right now.

    @Carolsnotebook - I was so shocked by it!

    @Story - It seems that many fans of the Thirteenth Tale also really enjoyed The Historian, which is making sense to me -- they both are modern spooky tales referencing classic works. I am loving The Historian as well, although I'm starting to get freaked out when I am alone in dark rooms at night!

    @Asheley - I think you would LOVE this book! I want to know what you think of it, so read it soon! Haha :)

    @Pepca - I think you would really enjoy it!

    @everybookandcranny - Oh, that is so interesting that it sparked your interest in blogging! I am excited to read your thoughts about it when you read it again. :) Thank you for sharing!

    @Danielle - I certainly hope she does! Her writing style is so amazing.

    @Kailana - It was amazing!

  12. This was a great book! I really enjoyed reading it and can't wait for Diane Setterfield's next book to come out!

  13. @readinginwinter - Do you know if there is another one on its way?!? I want to read it!


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