The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield [book review]

The Thirteenth Tale coverThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon
Release Date: September 12th 2006
Publisher: Atria
Series: n/a

Goodreads description: 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.

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.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still

I went into The Thirteenth Tale completely blind. I’ve heard the title and knew that people loved it, but I had absolutely no idea what it was about. I was at the library and had already picked out some books and I wanted five. I saw this one, recognized the title, and picked it up.

Margaret Lea grew up in her father’s bookstore. She always knew an intense love of books. She reads a certain type of book, so when a popular fiction author contacts her and asks her to write a biography, she’s surprised. She’s never read any of Vida Winter’s wildly popular novels. She finds a rare copy of Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, a book of stories with the last one left out, and she devours it. She joins the ranks of Vida’s fans, wondering about the thirteenth tale. She’s intrigued by the missing stories: the thirteenth tale and Vida’s own story. Vida gives fake interviews to reporters and never shares details of her life.

This book is going to be so difficult for me to review because I am still not even sure how I feel about it. I don’t even feel equipped to discuss it. It was engaging and entertaining. I was definitely involved in the story. I did not find this story predictable in the least.

Margaret Lea is a vulnerable character. She is missing something and it defines her whole life. It defines her relationship with her parents and how she views books and the world at large. It definitely affects how she looks at Vida Winter and the story Vida shares. Vida Winter is gruff and combative. She’s got a story and she’s got a sickness. She has been in charge for so long that she isn’t used to anyone questioning her. Margaret’s spine and refusal to rollover surprises and impresses Vida. It was entertaining to see them clash, I think it was good for Vida to face opposition. Vida is also vulnerable in a lot of ways, but she has spent so long keeping that part of herself buried, along with the truth. I think she views the telling of her story to be a release. She needs to empty her soul.

I’m not really sure how to discuss the story Vida tells. It’s tragic and strange. There are bizarre siblings, Charlie and Isabelle and Isabelle’s twins, Adeline and Emmeline. There are so many psychological issues that are just frightening and they’re all things that seem sadly realistic. No wonder Vida would want to create a new life for herself and many other worlds if her past was so wretched. I think most people have things in their past they might not want to share with everyone.

Vida isn’t exactly straightforward in her tale of the twins. You learn early in her story that the story is leading to a certain point. The March family has a lot of issues and they don’t like to actually spend time raising children. The March twins have twin issues: they get lost in each other but they also fight and one is dominant while the other lets the dominant twin do whatever she wants. People around them try to help the family in different ways, but a lot of weird things happen. At the end of it all, there’s a surprise and you see the story in a different way. 

a photo of a quote from the book

Sorry, this is not a great picture but I was in a hurry! This is actually from the letter Vida sends Margaret asking her to write the biography. It caught my eye when I read it and after reading her story, it makes even more sense why she found solace in stories.

I think I expected a paranormal twin ability with this book, but it was something incredibly different from I expected. To be surprised was nice, but the wrap-up was still troubling. There was also the end of the story with Margaret, which was kind of ridiculous to me. However, I was extremely engaged with The Thirteenth Tale. My emotions during the story were all over the place, sometimes I didn’t enjoy what was happening but the story was still interesting. I like the idea of Vida’s strength and her weakness. She kept a lot hidden and buried and had to create a lot of different worlds and lives to cope with that. She turned her life around, but she still had a story of her own that followed and haunted her.

3 star rating

I liked this book and I think I’m still a bit perplexed and just sad about it. It definitely made me think and feel, which is what a book is supposed to do. I think I would like to read it again sometime and see the things I missed the first time. Reading a book with all the knowledge of the ending really puts it in a different light and can add a lot to the story. I don’t think this one will ever be a favorite, but I am glad I read it. I would recommend The Thirteenth Tale if you like sad, puzzling stories. Also, I don’t think it’s a ghost story but I definitely think it’s a haunted story, if that makes sense.

I know a lot of people love this one, so if you’ve read it, did you love it? Did you know they’re making a miniseries of it? My girl Sophie Turner who plays Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones and is a fellow Sansa stan is going to play Adeline. I’m not sure how they’re working out the twin thing and…other things, but Sophie is awesome so hopefully it will all be okay. If you’ve read it are you excited about the adapttion?

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10 thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield [book review]

  1. I read this book my freshman year of high school. My English teacher thrusted it into my hands and said it would bring me feelings I never had before along with thought provoking questions.
    5years later and 1 more reread I’m not sure i understand all of the plot still. It’s a great book just a lot in so few pages.

    Saw your review in twitter. Just dropping by.

    Ashley
    Books Buying Beauty
    @Bookz4Nerdz

  2. I have read it, and I did (do) love it! But when I picked it up, I hadn’t heard anything about the book or the author, it was just a random pull off the shelf that turned out to be something incredible… I’m not sure how much of a difference it would or wouldn’t have made if it had been hyped up to me for years.

    I had no idea it was going to be a miniseries! I really don’t know how I feel about it though… it’s a book (in part) about the love of books… this probably makes me sound like a terrible book snob, but I don’t know that a movie could really capture that world of storytelling in the same way. But I guess time will tell.

    • Maybe if I would have known it was kind of darker maybe I would have been in a better mindset for it. I’m not sure. The twin stuff with Margaret was really strange for me, and I kept wondering how different the March twins would have been with some love in their life. I did love the revelation and the mastery but again felt sad about Aurelius. I have so many mixed feelings. My review probably isn’t very good because I still feel confused!

      I always feel a lurch inside of me when something I love is going to be adapted for the screen. I agree with you; movies never fully carry the love of books and writing as well as a book can. I think it might miss the mark a bit, but hopefully it won’t be too awful!

  3. Pingback: Goodbye September! [recap] | a blighted one

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