Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield



Book Description:
When Margaret Lea opened the door to the past, what she confronted was her destiny.

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 kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, at last she 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 Emmeline, 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 and become, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter, and in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life.


I had heard about this book, but didn't really know what to expect, except that it was a mystery and I thought it was going to be sort of scary. It had been praised up and down and compared to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, as kind of a Gothic type of mystery. It wasn't scary, but it was very thoughtful and clever - a literary mystery with themes of twins, unburied ghosts and abandonment.

Often, it had me convinced I knew just what was going on and knew the answer to the puzzle, and then over and over I was surprised by how wrong I was! I'm not usually a big mystery reader, my radar is not as finely tuned as some other readers when it comes to figuring out the answers and picking up on clues; I merely enjoyed reading this book until the end and finding out the answer to Vida Winter's thirteenth tale and Margaret's own demons as well.

The build up was thoughtful and slow, in fact, I had a hard time getting into the first half of the book. I was drawn to it and the theme of twins throughout, but I did not find it overly fascinating or hard to put down. I put it down often, but by the second half of the book, it was hard to put down. I found it memorable, the characters, the plot, the scenery - all very well done. Not overly wordy or melodramatic at all, yet the imagery stayed in my mind, the moors in Yorkshire, Angelfield's woods and gardens, gravel crunching under one's feet, the library, the bookstore, the topiaries - I had a vivid idea of the places and what everyone looked like and sounded like.

One of the best parts of the book for me was how it all unravelled by the end. Like a key unlocking the doors, one by one, until the mystery was out in the open. Towards the end, I was a bit confused as to who was who, and I'm still not absolutely positive (I will have to discuss this book with others who had read it) about who's bones were in the library. There is a ghostly element in this tale as well, which gives it that eerie gothic touch, but I must admit, I never really believed ghosts were the answer, I knew there had to be some reasonable expanation for some strange goings on - and it was a very surprising one! I had no idea!

I'm trying not to give up any spoilers here, but anyone who loves books (like I do) especially Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Rebecca will appreciate a lot of the nods to these books, but they're not necessary to reading this book and enjoying it. Even though it's a mystery, I think this would be a good book to re-read, you'll appreciate all the little clues and nuances, especially the little things Miss Winter tells Margaret when they first meet. I found the dual stories about twins interesting, but the story of the Angelfield twins was much more compelling than Margaret's sad story of losing her sister and her mother's abandonment. The very ending of the book and Margaret's hallucination epiphany was a little weird, but I do like the idea of what happens with her and the doctor - although a bit out of the blue and unexpected!

This was not a quick read for me, it took me a little while, but it was worth it, I'm glad I didn't rush through it, for much of it needs to be savored and thought upon. Memorable.

4/5

2 comments:

Catherine said...

I just finished this book last night, and I DID have trouble putting it down. I was so drawn in to it, I couldn't rest without KNOWING. I can't say its the best book I've ever read, but it was very very well done, and a fantastic story. I, too, am a bit confused by who ended up being who at the end. Perhaps that's as it was intended? But yet she was so insistent about tying up all the loose ends for us...

And I too didn't like the "epiphany" at the end; one of the strengths of the book up until that point, IMO, was that it was a spooky ghost story that could actually have happened. The last bit seemed to weaken that I thought.
catherine

Julie said...

Sorry, I didn't realize you had commented until today!

Yes, I agree with you on all your points - thanks for commenting!

(must fix this so I get emailed on comments)

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