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Publisher: Simon and Schuster
When her health begins failing, the mysterious author Vida Winter decides to let Margaret Lea, a biographer, write the truth about her life, but Margaret needs to verify the facts since Vida has a history of telling outlandish tales.
I first read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale in around 2007 or 2008 for a previous book club. The rules in that club were understood that the person who suggested the book would be the one to lead the discussion. When this book was first suggested, it looked like we’d have a large group for the discussion. I had never heard of the book and, honestly, it would not have been my pick to read this particular book. But, I did it anyway.
In the end, the person who suggested the book never showed up and the “book group” ended up being just me and my 2 close friends, one of whom never finished the book and the other of whom had read the book when it was first published a year or so prior and had never re-read it. Both of these women had very demanding jobs, so I’m not faulting them for this. However, the discussion I had hoped we would have never materialized. Apparently my affection for this book was evident even then—my one friend commented that I had spent most the evening “caressing” my copy.
That book club has since dissolved (but my two close friends, remain my two close friends—and we still chat about books all the time) and I have recently joined a new one. What was the first book I suggested? Why, The Thirteenth Tale, of course!
I won’t give you a summary of the story—in fact, I can’t give you a summary without ruining the story itself. What I can do, though, is set the stage.
Margaret Lea is a young woman who spends her days in her father’s rare bookstore in London. Traffic is slow in the store, and Ms. Lea spends her days reading about long dead authors and writing up little biographies of them. Margaret is not a happy woman—for as long as she can remember, she has had a hole in her life. As a young girl, she discovered the reason for this. However, this discovery intensified, rather than alleviated, these feelings.
One day, she receives a letter from Vida Winter, Britain’s most successful (we’re talking J.K. Rowling successful here) and mysterious writer. Vida Winter has told her life story to many people over the years, but every story was different. To Margaret Lea, she will tell the truth.
Vida Winter introduces Margaret Lea to a world of secrets, lies, ghosts, twins and at least one abandoned baby. Telling her story is a catharsis, both for Vida Winter and for Margaret Lea.
This is not a pretty story. In fact, it turns the fairy tales and happy endings a reader might expect upside down. Still, it is a beautiful story, woven with the threads of love, longing and belonging. The characters, from Miss Winter and Margaret Lea all the way to the neighborhood Doctor’s wife and a new mother hanging laundry, are fully human, with their own faults and strengths.
There are many parts of this book where the reader will scratch his or her head and wonder if they missed something. They will want to reach out, wring the author’s neck and yell, “Tell me what is going on!” However, for those who can be patient and get through the beginnings, middles and ends, there will be a great reward.
If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would Brontësque, or Brontëan (I don’t think either are actually words, but I mean to say that it is very much in the style of the Brontë’s). I have always loved the work of the Brontë sisters—I actually spent a summer during my college years studying the Brontë’s in England. It is no surprise that one the Brontë classics, Jane Eyre, plays a central role in this novel (What is surprising was my discovery that Setterfield was little more than a casual fan of the Brontë sisters). In describing this to others, I used the classic Grey’s Anatomy term, “dark and twisty.” This is not a book of sunshine and rainbows, but of secrets and shadows.
While I cannot recommend this book enough to others, I recognize that this is not a book for everyone. It is a book only for readers who have the patience and fortitude for such a book. It is a book only for readers who are worthy of it.