BookBrowse Reviews The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2007, 432 pages

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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.

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. Speaking in an interview shortly after The Thirteenth Tale was published, Setterfield says, "I read French literature almost exclusively for more than a decade, so when I left academia, I really wanted to go back to the English classics which I loved so much as a teenager. It was very nostalgic for me to write in that sort of style."

With short chapters often ending on cliff hangers, a female protagonist with a knack for cracking codes, and a large cast of eccentric characters who enter and exit as the plot requires, the reviewer for The Washington Post feels that The Thirteenth Tale has more in common with Brown (Dan Brown) than Bronte, and that the pieces fall into place too easily "just as we discover where the holes are". The reviewer for Booklist also references the short chapters, but in a much more positive light, opining that Setterfield "skillfully keeps the plot moving by unfurling a new twist in each chapter and leaves no strand untucked at the surprising and satisfying conclusion. A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics. Lovers of books about book lovers will be enthralled."

Whatever the reviewers may say (and they are on the whole extremely positive), the American public embraced the tale with enthusiasm when it published in hardcover in September 2006, launching this first novel into the top of the bestseller charts in its first week on sale! Sales in the UK, where it was published a few months earlier than in the USA, were much slower (about 1,000 copies per week), but picked up fast when buzz started to build on the other side of the Atlantic.

When asked last year about her meteoric success, Setterfield replied that she was not used to being so busy and that she missed writing (at the time, her schedule left her no time to even think about starting another book). She went on to say, "I'm used to living a really quiet life with lots of space to think. I'm not used to being so busy and social and meeting all these people. It's not that I'm anti-social, just that I like my own company, and I've been living with people who aren't real for the past few years – I find real people a lot more demanding."

More about the author: The publisher's bio provides exactly two lines of information about Diane Setterfield, but happily BookBrowse has been able to dig up a lot more about one of the USA's newest "it" authors. Diane was born in Reading and grew up in Theale (both in the county of Berkshire in the South of England), she attended Theale Green School, and then Bristol University where she studied French Literature. She taught in various universities in England and also in France, where she lived for several years. The Thirteenth Tale is her first novel but she has had academic works published previously - about 19th and 20th century French literature, in particular about the works of André Gide (a French writer, humanist, and moralist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947). She is 43, and lives with four cats and her husband, Peter Whittall, an accountant, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Until the success of The Thirteenth Tale, she ran her own business teaching French to people planning to move to France.

She left academia in the late '90s - she enjoyed teaching but hated university politics and after five years was still working to pay off the loan she had taken out to fund her PhD. She says, "I gave up my job to write before I knew what I wanted to write about ... It might seem bold or brave, but really it comes down to how much you want to do something. If you want to do something so badly, then you have to take a bold decision."

After leaving academia, she found herself mentally exhausted, so, she spent her first year as a novelist renovating her house and giving private French lessons. "I was doing a lot of physical work, it was enormously good for me to be away from pen and paper, it enabled me to just wander in my thoughts and let a different side of my mind take over," she says. "If I hadn't had the time to do that, I don't think I would have been able to write the same book I did."

When she finally sat down to start writing she spent the mornings writing and the afternoons doing "something quiet, to have some thinking time". Then one day the voice of Miss Winter came to her and she set about a first draft which was completed 18 months later, but she was unhappy with the result. She says, "The biographer, Margaret, was very quiet and reserved and she was very difficult and withdrawn, I could tell she was hiding something from me, but I couldn't tell what it was. I got very annoyed with the book and the characters, and didn't do anything for a year. After that I took a deep breath and sat down with it again. I couldn't leave it alone – I just felt these characters deserved to have their stories told."

Eighteen months later, in November 2005, The Thirteenth Tale was finished and on its way to agents. Following a marathon 10-day auction, she was paid £800,000 (approx $1.6 million) by her UK publisher, Orion, and a further $1m by Simon & Schuster in the USA. Rights have already been sold in 31 countries. For a continuation of this bio, and an extensive interview, please visit BookBrowse.

This review was originally published in October 2006, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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