Review: The Thirteenth Tale

10 Feb

“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 fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.” (pg. 289-290)

I’m not entirely sure how Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale languished on my shelves for as long as it did without getting read. I bought this in hardcover when it was first released in 2006. Five years ago. It’s been packed and moved more times than I can count in those five years, and yet, it’s always been one of those books I just haven’t read. Until now. And let me tell you, what on Earth was I waiting for??

Perhaps the description of it as “Gothic suspense” threw me off. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gothic fiction, but I don’t think that was it. I think there were just always books that were more pressing or more intriguing. I didn’t entirely know what the book was about before I picked it up, and the plot summaries I found were not helpful at all. Setterfield’s debut novel was also the first pick by the Barnes & Noble Recommends program, at the time I was a B&N bookseller. So I bought it with my employee discount and promptly forgot about it, with the occasional reminder that it was somewhere on my TBR list. But sometimes the universe has a way of pointing you in exactly the perfect reading direction. First of all, I went to Boston over New Years to visit friends, one of whom is a library archivist* and when she says that a book changed her life, you pay attention. And then when one of my favorite and trusted book bloggers, Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm, posted a glowing review and giveaway for the same book, the deal was pretty much sealed. I too moved it to the top of my reading list, and it was the perfect antithesis to Just Kids by Patti Smith. Even though, before I read it, I didn’t find summaries that helpful, I’m still going to post one from B&N’s reading group guide. It’s lengthy, but worth it:

Diane Setterfield’s remarkable first novel begins like a reader’s dream: a bookseller’s daughter returns to the shop one night to discover a letter from England’s best-loved writer, a woman whose life is shrouded in rumor and legend. Reading the strange missive from the famous Vida Winter, Margaret Lea is puzzled by its invitation to discover the truth about the author’s mystifying past. Later that evening, unable to sleep, Margaret returns to the shop from her bedroom upstairs in search of something to read. Passing over her old favorites—The Woman in White, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre—she can’t resist the temptation of the rarest of her correspondent’s books, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, the recalled first edition of a book that contained only twelve stories. Falling under Vida Winter’s spell for the first time, Margaret reads it straight through. Not long afterward she is standing in the opulent library of Miss Winter’s Yorkshire home, transported by the romance of books into a mysterious tale of her own.

Only five short chapters into Setterfield’s deft, enthralling narrative, her readers too have been transported: they’ve inhaled the dusty scent of Lea’s Antiquarian Bookshop, shared the sense of adventurous comfort Margaret absorbs from her late-night reading, and been seduced by the glamorous enigma of Vida Winter. Yet The Thirteenth Tale has just begun. Commissioned by Miss Winter to compose her unvarnished biography, Margaret is soon swept up in the tragic history she must unravel—a story stranger and more haunting than any the celebrated author has ever penned, encompassing a grand house, a beautiful yet doomed family, passion, madness, ghosts, and a secret that holds readers spellbound until the very end. Richly atmospheric and deeply satisfying, Setterfield’s debut revives in all their glory the traditions of gothic and romantic suspense exemplified by the works of Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, and Daphne du Maurier. Old-fashioned in the best sense, it’s an urgently readable novel that’s nearly impossible to put down.

“A reader’s dream?” Seriously, HOW DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO READ THIS? There are so many adjectives here that would otherwise turn me off: old-fashioned, tragic, Gothic, romantic. But I’m going to echo Kerry when I say, RUN, do not walk to buy this book. If you’re here, I assume that you are a capital-R, Reader, in which case a book about books, and about storytelling and truth is exactly the kind of book you would love. Trust me. The opening quote I reference is indicative of the entire mood of the book and exactly how books become a larger part of your soul and of your daily life, which is something I don’t think you can fully appreciate until it’s happened to you.

I don’t really have any interest in critiquing the book, because I did that thing where I was so enthralled that I overlooked any flaws I might have otherwise picked up on. But what I did notice here – and which I touched on when I reviewed Just Kids – is the desire to have a larger understanding of the literary references throughout the book. Setterfield draws heavily on Jane Eyre among many, many other classic novels, and many of those books I haven’t read. And most are on my Must Read: Classics challenge list. So I felt like I was missing something…wait, let me rephrase – nothing was missing or lacking from my reading, but I felt as though, by having an understanding of these works, my reading of The Thirteenth Tale would only be enhanced.

I know it’s not an uncommon thing; authors are also readers, and like all readers, they are influenced by the books they love. Sometimes those influences are less apparent, but in some cases, they are front and center. In some cases, I’ve been put off by not having that literary knowledge from which to draw when reading a book, but in this case, I wasn’t. In finishing it, I immediately wanted to pick up Jane Eyre (particularly with the movie adaptation coming soon). And I was shocked to discover that I don’t already own a copy. I know! Horror of horrors. That will absolutely need to be rectified, but until then, I’m savoring every morsel that was The Thirteenth Tale.

Have you ever come across a book or text where you felt under-educated in terms of the literary references contained in the book? Do you persevere and read through it? Or do you abandon the book? Have you ever read something just because it was an influence or reference in something else?

*If you’re hiring for a good archivist in the Boston area, let me know. She’s fantastic! (Hi, Loron!)


4 Responses to “Review: The Thirteenth Tale”

  1. Kerry February 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Hey, thanks for the link to my review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I finished and had the same WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG thought. 🙂

  2. Karen February 10, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Hi I read this one ages ago, and I loved the setting of the bookshop and the ‘secret’ thirteenth chapter, I found it very evocotive, also when she came to Yorkshire, to Harrogate (I think Setterfield is from there?) is not too far from me and I could associate with it. I remember not being blown away by this one though, I seem to remember being a little disappointed at the end.

    To answer your question, I think the book with the most literary references that I hadn’t read in was ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ I thought that if I read all the books the bookgroup read and discussed throughout the book, I’d never get around to reading the actual book! Although in the end, I enjoyed the book immensly and the references didn’t make much difference to the overall story.

  3. Greg Zimmerman February 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Read this awhile ago when it first came out, and sadly, I remember next to nothing about it – except the one detail where Margaret comes home and thinks about how excited she is that she has hours stretched before her to do nothing but read. Talk about resonant sentiment!

    So I just looked back on what I wrote about the book when I finished (12/19/2006!) and this sort of struck me as funny (if I do say so myself): “It sort of seemed like the literary book for people that don’t normally read literary books.”

    But I seemed to have liked what was a theme in the book: Searching for truth through stories.

    Sadly, I don’t remember the Jane Eyre influence, and didn’t write myself any notes about, so I can’t comment specifically on that. But, in general, like you, I definitely make every effort to read a writer’s influences, especially if there’s a particular connection in the text. One example is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which I read first, and then immediately read Howard’s End.

    I don’t own Jane Eyre either.


  1. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland - February 20, 2011

    […] Rachel of a home between the pages reviews a book I have already read and would recommend it to anyone wanting a light read with literary allusions and Gothic undertones: Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. In this novel, a bookseller’s daughter is invited to write a biography of a famed, reclusive author by the author herself. The narrator moves from her father’s dusty antiquarian bookshop to a large, remote house on the fog shroud moors to investigate the author’s mysterious past. There are tons of literary references and a bit of suspense which make for a fairly good weekend read. […]

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