Friday, August 19, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Book Details
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Paperback, 432 Pages
2007, Washington Square Press
ISBN: 0743298039

Sometimes, when you open the door to the past, what you confront is your destiny.

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author's tale of gothic strangeness -- featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess,a topiary garden and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale didn't start out well for me. The narrator, Margaret Lea, is dull. One would think a book lover like myself would identify with a woman whose life revolves around books, but Margaret's love of the written word is snobbish. She prefers much older books, to the point where she has never read a contemporary novel. She works in her father's shop and lives above it. She lives the life of a recluse, having absolutely no social interaction beyond her father. As an amateur biographer, she only writes about obscure, long dead people - as live people are messy and she's rather not have to actually deal with them. She's quite the party, Margaret.

Margaret's contacted by Vida Winter, the world's bestselling contemporary writer, asking to write her biography. Vida has been known to lie in all interviews, leaving her personal history completely unknown. Also leading a reclusive lifestyle, I didn't have much hope that Vida would be any more interesting than Margaret.

Margaret travels to Vida's home and hears her very long story. As the reader, we experience both Vida's telling of her past and Margaret's reaction to it. The book initially seems to show the mystery as what is the thirteenth tale that was left out of Vida's most famous work, but the real mystery is Vida herself. Layer by layer, her past is revealed and nothing is as it seems. She becomes a thoroughly interesting character and her story fully engrosses.

I was tempted to put The Thirteenth Tale down many times in the first fifty or so pages. It dragged mercilessly and even in the end, I cared for Margaret and her narration very little. I struggled through, trusting others who raved about this book, and ended up glad I did. Vida and her mystery are surprising, engaging and completely worth the wait.


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