The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield
Published 2006, Atria Books
Hardback, 406 pages
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.This book is like several stories woven together - Margaret's story, Vida Winter's story, and the story that Vida tells to Margaret. There was so much to keep track of that I really took my time reading and digesting the book.
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. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.
Before Margaret meets Vida, the reader learns about Margaret's childhood filled with books, growing up in an antique bookstore with a book trader for a father - so many things for a bookworm to envy! Her love of nineteenth century literature seeps through the pages of the book in subtle ways, and I doubt I picked up on all of the hints.
Vida draws Margaret into her world through secrets, ghosts, and promises of some greater truth. Margaret is suspicious enough of Vida's story to do her own investigative work into Vida's past, which reveals more secrets and ghosts, as she is also battling with her own personal ghost.
The "thirteenth tale" is the big mystery and hook for Margaret, and very little of the book is predictable, so I was just as surprised by how it all ends as Margaret is. Margaret's dedication to Vida' story and her past goes way beyond that of a simple biographer, and I can't help but root all her varied efforts in tying up all the loose ends before Vida expires.
The over-riding theme of the book is the duality of twins, which makes for a very interesting concept and plays into so many sub-plots throughout the book. Without giving it away, uncovering the big revelation is worth the 400-plus page read!
The Cover: The cover captures me immediately, since it is a stack of books - I love books!
First Lines: "It was November. Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage."
There is nothing particularly interesting about this opening line, not even attractive, so this could have been done differently.
Favorite Quote: "All morning 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."
Read For: Alex Awards Reading Challenge