Sep 28, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Margaret Lea is an amateur biographer and bookworm who works at her father’s antique bookstore. One day, she is contacted by Vida Winter, the country’s best-loved novelist, who asks her to write her biography. Vida Winter’s reclusiveness is almost as famous as her stories, and she is known to lie to journalists who try to find out more about her life. But it seems that now she is ready to tell the truth at last. Margaret travels to Ms Winter’s house in Yorkshire, and begins to unravel a Gothic tale of family secrets – a tale that forces her to confront the truth about her own past.

It’s no wonder that The Thirteenth Tale is so immensely popular among book bloggers. It truly is a book for book lovers. Early in the book, Margaret says this about herself and her work:
Lives—dead ones—are just a hobby of mine. My real work is in the bookshop. My job is not to sell the books—my father does that—but to look after them. Every so often I take out a volume and read a page or two. After all, reading is looking after in a manner of speaking. Though they’re not old enough to be valuable for their age alone, nor important enough to be sought after by collectors, my charges are dear to me, even if, as often as not, they are as dull on the inside as they are on the outside. No matter how banal the contents, there is always something that touches me. For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down.
How could I not love her after this? But there are more reasons that make The Thirteenth Tale so appealing to bibliophiles than than all the references to the quiet joys of a bookish life, and to Gothic classics like Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw or The Woman in White. There’s also the fact that The Thirteenth Tale is, among other things, a story about the process of telling stories in itself, and about the relationship between stories and truth.

The way all these references to Gothic classics are embedded in the plot is so clever. I recognized Vida Winter’s story as soon as she begun to tell it. And no, I didn’t know how it all was going to turn out, but I was instantly reminded of Jane Eyre, of Rebecca, of Tideland, of “A Rose for Emily”, of every novel or story I’ve ever read with a classic Gothic feel, old or new.

And by this I don’t mean to say that The Thirteenth Tale is unoriginal. What I mean is that Diane Setterfield captured all these echoes and used them to tell a story that is both surprising and instantly familiar. The thrill of recognition The Thirteenth Tale gave me was almost the same thrill I feel when I recognize the structure of a favourite fairy tale in a story I’m reading. Diane Setterfield knows how to use this very familiarity to surprise the reader, and that's no small task.

The resolution to the mystery of Vida Winter's life surprised me when I had become convinced I wasn’t going to be surprised. I’m probably not the only one who had several “a-ha!” moments, moments when I thought I had figured it all out, only to be proven wrong every time. Diane Setterfield uses the right clues to make the reader reach the wrong conclusions. But like Margaret Lea eventually realises, the truth is in the story all along, hidden in plain sight. And it makes sense that in a novel about stories the answer to the mystery is carefully concealed in words that go unnoticed. I’m sure I will appreciate the way this plot is crafted even more when I return to this book. Now I know exactly what I have to pay attention to.

The Thirteenth Tale is a very enjoyable read, and one that I’ll certainly return to. I’ll leave you with one more wonderful bookish quote:
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 fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.
And this is probably my favourite passage in the whole book:
When I came to myself Dr. Clifton was there. He put an arm around me. “I know,” he said. “I know.”
He didn’t know, of course, not really. And yet that was what he said, and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. “I know,” he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.”
Other Blog Reviews:
Framed and Booked
Pardon my French
Biblio Addict
Here, There and Everywhere
Trish's Reading Nook
Melody's Reading Corner
Bell Literary Reflections
Everyday Reads
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Valentina's Room
Stainless Steel Droppings
A Striped Armchair
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Becky's Book Reviews
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Once Upon a Bookshelf
My Year of Reading Seriously
Maw Books
So Many Books, So Little Time
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog
Some Reads
Reading Adventures
Out of the Blue
Lost in a Good Story
An Adventure in Reading
Glitterless Gold
Mari Reads
In Spring it is the Dawn
Blogging 'bout Books
Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books
Dog Ear Diary
The Bluestocking Society
Subliminal Intervention

(I believe that's the most reviews of a book I've ever found! It really is a book lovers kind of book. Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I really enjoyed this book as well.

    Here is the link to my review:

  2. I am really glad you liked this book!! I have read a few reviews of some who were not enthused over it and those few always surprise me, though I know they shouldn't since not everyone can like the same things...

    I wish she'd write another book, but though I've searched I can find nothing that tells me she is writing anything...but then not everyone had more than one book inside of them... i'm just glad she had this one to tell!

  3. You've summed up much of what I loved about this book. I was over the moon about the way Setterfield dealt with stories and their effects on our lives.

  4. I've got to stop procrastinating and read this one. Sounds like a winner for my funk and for the RIP III.

  5. It is a good book. Just the right amount of creepy for me. :)

  6. Very well said! I loved the atmosphere of this book - I listened to it in audiobook format while knitting, and got so frustrated when I ran out of yarn, because it meant I had to take a break from listening!

    I didn't make this connection until I read your post, but another book that's got a similar "answer to the mystery hidden in plain sight" feeling is The Prestige by Christopher Priest - similar very clever use of language.

  7. I am so glad you liked this book, I read it a few years ago and it still stays with me.
    You did an awsome job reviewing this story, thank-you.
    I wish I could re-read it again, I was so excited about it that i gave it to a friend to read and never saw it again,I will take it out of the library or on BookMooch a day.

    Hope you have a nice week, Ana

  8. i am definitely going to read this one.. soo interesting!:)

    btw, please stop my blog.. i have a little something waiting for you there!:)

  9. Your lovely review reminded me that it is time for me to reread of this book. There are so many quotable bits in this story, I can't believe you narrowed them to three. ;) Nicely done!

  10. I must read this soon. I've heard overwhelmingly positive reviews about it.

  11. That quote about starting a new book is one of my favorites. It truly is an amazing book and I'm glad you enjoy. Thanks for the link, also.


  12. Oh I loved The Thirteenth Tale. Thanks for the link!

    I heard that they're supposed to make a movie out of it at one time but I'm not sure if that idea was shelved or not.

  13. My mother-in-law just finished reading this one and really enjoyed it. She called just to ask me for another book recommendation tonight. :-)

    I am glad you enjoyed this one, Nymeth. It's definitely one I hope to return to in the future.

  14. I'm definitely going to start on this one soon. It sounds too good to pass. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth!

  15. I loved the quotes that you picked! When I read this one I had no idea that bloggers liked it so much, I picked it up for my IRL bookclub.

  16. I'm glad you liked it Nymeth! I read it earlier this year and really enjoyed it as well. :-)

  17. I love the quotes you chose!
    I will also return to it one day, I almost did as soon as I finished it, I wanted to trace all the clues, but I only re-read a few pages that made me go "oh yeah...".
    Glad you enjoyed it:)

  18. I really do need to get around to reading this. That is a lot of other blog reviews! Glad you enjoyed it.

  19. Mari, thanks for the link!

    Deslily: According to this article she is working on a second novel! It's from last year, though, so it looks like she's taking her time :P

    xicanti: She did it so well, didn't she?

    Andi: I think this might be the perfect book to help you get your funk!

    Tricia: For me too. I always prefer atmospheric books to downright horror ones.

    Fyrefly: I've heard good things about The Prestige before - thanks for the recommendation, it really sounds like I should pick it up :)

    Madeline, aww, thanks! I hope you get another copy of this one soon. It must be so much fun to re-read it. You have a great week too, and once again, good luck with everything you have to face.

    Ramya: Thank you so much :D

    fuzzycricket: Believe me, I had a hard time narrowing them down!

    Charley, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    CJ: You're welcome! It really is a great quote.

    Ladytink, you're welcome! Somehow I have a hard time imagining this story as a movie, but who knows what a good director could do. If they do it, I hope they do it right.

  20. Literary Feline: This is a book that book lovers seem to be unable to resist :) I think I've yet to see a single negative review.

    Alice: I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

    Natasha: I knew it was popular, but I wasn't aware of just how popular until I did a search for other reviews :P

    Joanna: I really did :)

    Valentina: I wanted to go back and read certain bits too! But then I thought it'd be more fun to just read the whole thing again in a couple of months.

    Rhinoa: lol, it really is. I had no idea there were that many. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one!

  21. Good lord. Am I the last person in the world that hasn't read this book??

    What a great review!

  22. crikey. I've read so many good reviews of this book!

  23. I didn't know this book was 'meant' for book lovers! I gotta get it and read it for myself too. :D

  24. Ok, I admit it: I did kind of tear up when I read that passage with Dr. Clifton. It was just so true and so touching that my heart did a little "awww!!!" I really glad you liked this!

  25. Isn't it just the perfect Gothic novel, drawing on all previous Gothic novels? I adored it.

  26. Gothic book-loving novel? *slobber* Where have you been all my life?

  27. I've seen this book all around the blogs but haven't read it yet. I really like the quotes you shared.

  28. Awesome review Nymeth! I love the quotes you left with us. I read this book a couple of years ago with my book club I believe and we all loved it. It's such a good story and like you said you think you know what's going on and yet you really don't. I really need to revisit this book again one day as it's one of my keepers.

  29. I had missed that one Nymeth! You'd think something would be written about how the "new book" is comming along by now! Or she put that one in her drawer too and decided to enjoy the money from Thirteenth Tale.. but I hope not

  30. Wow, that IS a lot of reviews on this book. I can definitely see why it's popular. Well if you want another review on your list there, I read this book and reviewed it earlier this year, too. I was actually surprised I liked it as much as I did, because normally I don't like modern stuff so much.

  31. I'm glad you loved this book too! I couldn't say enough about it...great review!

  32. Stephanie: Probably not :P But you'll love it, so hurry up and read it!

    Mariel: With good reason!

    Josette: Indeed you do!

    J.S. Peyton: She puts it so perfectly, doesn't she?

    Jenclair: It really is :)

    Raych: I know! What more could we ask for?

    Jeane, I hope you enjoy the rest of the book just as much :)

    Dar: It's definitely a keeper for me as well. I'm glad you enjoyed it too!

    Deslily: I know...or maybe she's just a slow writer! I wish she had a blog where we could find out.

    Amanda, thanks for your link! This novel has a classic feel that really appeals even to those you aren't much into contemporary fiction, doesn't it?

    Kristina, thanks!

  33. Great review. I really agree with most everythng you said. I liked Margaret most of the time. I loved Setterfield's prose. Even so, I thought the story was just okay. I know I'm in the minority which is okay.

  34. Well its obvious from the number of reviews and comments, this is a popular book! Thanks for linking my review.

    I felt similarly as you did about the ending. I suspected something was awry, but I didn't quite catch what was coming.

  35. Wonderful review! I have yet to read this one, but it is on my TBR.

  36. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this book, Nymeth! This is one of my favourite reads this year! :D

  37. Awesome review! I adored this book. Unfortunately I read it before I started my current blog. I think I will have to revisit it soon and post about it!

    I found myself completely drawn into the story, immersed in the atmosphere. Perfect Autumn read.

  38. So glad you liked this one--and it sounds like following up after Jane Eyre worked well. This one had me guessing until the end and I loved that about the book. I thought I had it all figured out and I went flipping back through the book once everything was revealed searching for the little clues. You're absolutely right--this is a great book for book lovers.

  39. Framed: Yes, it's perfectly okay. We can't all be enthusiastic about every book. Still, I'm glad you enjoyed it for the most part!

    Kim: You're welcome! It will be fun to pay attention to all the clues when I revisit this book.

    Teddy Rose, hope you enjoy it!

    Melody: I can totally see why!

    Quixotic: Thank you :) I hope you do revisit it and post about it, as I'd love to read your thoughts. And yes, it really is a perfect Autumn read.

    Trish: It's amazing how once you go back the clues are all there, isn't it?

  40. I think that's what makes the book so exciting. It's like watching The Sixth Sense again and seeing everything that you missed the first time around (um, you haven't see the movie you must!!)

  41. i've been wanting to read this one for so long. great review as always. wonderful passage as well.

  42. I had no idea that you hadn't read this back when it was all the rage. I'm so glad you finally did! What a wonderful review, I sense the same excitement that I had when I first read and reviewed it. It is an amazing book. I wish ever reading experience I had was as mesmerizing and satisfying as reading this one was. It is definitely a book for book lovers and it is such a perfect time of year to read it.

  43. Trish: I've seen it, but unfortunately a moron I used to know took great pleasure in spoiling it for me beforehand. Grrrrr. But yes, it's always so exciting when a book/movie manages to completely surprise you and yet you look back and everything makes sense. Another example is the 3rd Harry Potter book, and that's the reason why it's one of my favourites in the series.

    Naida, thanks! I hope you enjoy the book.

    Carl: I confess I knew next to nothing about this one until I started seeing reviews for last year's RIP. I wanted to read it then but I didn't have the chance, and I waited a whole year because, like you said, this is the perfect time of year for it!

  44. Great review! You're making me want to read it again!
    My short review of it is here.

  45. I loved this one, too. Here's my review:

  46. That's a really great review. It makes me want to read it more than my review did. I was kinda hohum on it. I didn't even think to touch on the power of the words themselves hiding the secrets.

  47. Thanks for the links, everyone! I added them to my post.

  48. Sheesh...I truly must be the last person on Earth left to read this one, huh?!!

    But, hey, what happened to Eva's armchair? Hehe. (Sorry, I'm such a dork!)

  49. Debi, you're not the last person for sure, but do read it! And I don't know what embarrassing typo you could possibly be referring to :P

  50. I had kind of skimmed your review before, because I was about to read the book - and now that I've read (and enjoyed!) it, I have to say that you chose the exact two passages that really stuck with me to include. I love that one about the membrane of the old book - it describes that experience perfectly! And the other, well, we all know how it feels to be on both ends of that, don't we? Lovely review. I'm glad you enjoyed this one as much as I did!

  51. This really was a fabulous book, wasn't it? I liked it even better the second time I read it. It might even be time for a third reading!

  52. OK, I FINALLY read this and what a great story!! I loved it. I can see why everyone is all, "Oh, I already read that, you will LOVE it!!" Now I'll join the ranks of those recommending it to the uninitiated (are there any left??)


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