Summary and book reviews of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2006,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2007,
    432 pages.

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Book Summary

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 have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last 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 while becoming, 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 that 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.

The Letter

It was November. Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage. Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat. Through the glass in the door it cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle, about to turn my key in the door, that I first saw the letter. Another white rectangle, it was on the fifth step from the bottom, where I couldn't miss it.

I closed the door and put the shop key in its usual place behind Bailey's Advanced Principles of Geometry. Poor Bailey. No one has wanted his fat gray book for thirty years. Sometimes I wonder what he makes of his role as guardian of the bookshop keys. I don't suppose it's the destiny he had in mind for the ...

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Summary
Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself -- all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.

Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Setterfield's erudite first work of fiction has all the hallmarks of a classic gothic novel, including the creepy ruined house, long-kept secrets, a madwoman in the attic and a dabbling of ghosts, Set in present-day England it has drawn comparisons to novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier, Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Margaux Wexberg Sanchez

"The Thirteenth Tale" keeps us reading for its nimble cadences and atmospheric locales, as well as for its puzzles, the pieces of which, for the most part, fall into place just as we discover where the holes are. And yet, for all its successes -- and perhaps because of them -- on the whole the book feels unadventurous, content to rehash literary formulas rather than reimagine them.

Publishers Weekly

like Jane [Eyre, Setterfield's heroine is] a real reader and makes a terrific narrator. That's where the comparisons end, but Setterfield, who lives in Yorkshire, offers graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures.

Booklist - Kaite Mediatore

A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics. Lovers of books about book lovers will be enthralled.

Kirkus Reviews

A contemporary Gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling. Setterfield's debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century.

Library Journal - Jenne Bergstrom

[It's] a gothic novel, and it doesn't pretend to be anything fancier. But this one grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed.

Reader Reviews
Stacy

The beginning
It is a book that was well written and very imaginative in its telling, but the beginning of the novel is a bit dry and long-winded in it description.

Charla Wilson

A twist around every corner
Ahhh! I do not really know where to begin in reviewing this book because there are so very many great things to be said about it. The first thing that comes to mind, are the many different paths that it takes the reader down. It will keep you ...   Read More

Gabrielle Renoir-Large

A Comfy Book That Harkens Back to the Classics
I bought Diane Setterfield’s bestseller, “The Thirteenth Tale” on impulse, when I saw it lying on a bargain table in the grocery store. I usually avoid bestsellers. Hype steers me away from books more often that it steers me towards them, and I just ...   Read More

Consuelo

The Thirteenth Tale
I am an avid book reader and this book is by far one of my favorites. I could hardly wait until my day was winding down so I could pick it back up and read until my eyes were heavy! The characters were very well thought out and described so ...   Read More

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What is a gothic novel? Definitions of a gothic novel abound but most sources agree that it is one in which supernatural horrors and an atmosphere of terror are pervasive, and where the action usually takes place in a dark, mysterious building, typically a castle built in the Gothic architectural style*.

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered the first gothic novel, but it was Ann Radcliffe who popularized the form with novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. During the 19th century there was a ...

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