Life in the A-Frame

Life in the A-Frame

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book Club Choice for June: The Thirteenth Tale

My choice for this month's book club is best described by this review:

A Storied Past

The Thirteenth Tale


Diane Setterfield

Published by Atria Books

Review by W. R. Greer


The Thirteenth Tale is a story about stories. Vida Winter, the woman whose story is at the center of Diane Setterfield's novel, tells her biographer, "Everybody has a story. When are you going to tell me yours?"
The biographer and narrator of this novel is Margaret Lea. She lives a quiet life outside of London with her parents, works in her father's antiquarian bookstore, and writes the occasional short biography of persons whose lives were so obscure that they've been almost lost to history. Her world revolves around books. She devotes six hours a night to reading, and loves the old stories where she can lose herself in their romance, intrigue, revenge, and madness before all the plot lines ultimately come together for a happy and satisfying ending. Jane Eyre is a book she often refers to as her favorite. Margaret doesn't have much of a life beyond her books and her father's store. She carries a scar, both physical and emotional, from her birth, a tragic event which has left her mother unable to enjoy any happiness in her life.
Margaret gets a letter from Vida Winter, perhaps the most renowned novelist of her time, asking Margaret to write her life's story. Vida Winter was perhaps most famous for her Tales of Courage and Desperation, which contains twelve different fables retold in her own fashion. Rumors abound that there were supposed to be thirteen tales, and for years, everyone wondered about what happened to the thirteenth tale.
Vida Winter's problem is that she's running out of stories to tell. Her novels were a way to ignore her own story and push it to the back of her mind, but now as she's facing her final days, her story is demanding to be told. For reasons that are unclear to Margaret, Vida Winter wants to tell this story to her. And what a story it is.

Vida's story goes back a generation before her birth. It involves a mother dying during childbirth, a beautiful daughter, a cruel son, and a husband unable to cope with his grief. This is a pattern that will repeat itself. Lovers are debilitated by grief, driven to madness and a hermit-like existence. Children run wild in the absence of any firm parenting. There are deaths, children born out of wedlock, ghosts, a governess, a kind country doctor, scandal, a topiary garden, and a fire that eventually destroyed the Angelfield home. To say any more would spoil the unraveling of the story.

Margaret resides at Vida Winter's Yorkshire home while the story is doled out in pieces to her. She realizes, though, that she's not getting the whole story, or at least not yet. The staff at the home interacts with her as little as possible. Something is digging in the garden at night and on some nights, it sounds like someone is softly singing the same five notes over and over again. Margaret makes a few trips to Angelfield to view the ruined home, discovering more surprises to the story. Yet, there are parallels in Vida's story to Margaret's life, reopening her own psychic wounds. A walk on the moors nearly does her in, and the story reaches its climax on a stormy night when the phone lines are down. Jane Eyre moves from being a book often discussed in The Thirteenth Tale to being an important part of the story. Margaret must put it all together, though, to understand Vida's life and the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale.

Vida Winter becomes a character that dominates this novel. Her clear grasp on what makes a story interesting reflects on Diane Setterfield's skill as well. The Thirteenth Tale is a riveting story that unravels with surprises and discoveries, where seemingly innocuous comments and events early in the novel actually bear great weight in the story's denouement. It's the type of novel that tempts the reader to reread it once they're finished, just to enjoy how all the parts come together once again. If you like to read and if you like a good story, Diane Setterfield has an entertaining one to share with you.

Please pick up a copy and read it for your own entertainment. If you are so inclined, interact with me on my discussion site:        LET'S READ AND TALK!


KathyB. said...

I have heard of this book before and now I am sure I will be looking for ti, looks like my kind of read~

Southern Comfort said...

The first few chapters were kind of tedious, but won't be able to put it down. I'm thinking of re-reading it so I can clarify all the plot twists in my mind. Hope you do read it and enjoy it.

Daisy said...

I have not read this, but it sounds like it would be a worthwhile choice. Thank you for your visit to my blog today and taking the time to leave a comment. Hope you have a nice week ahead. :)