three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Thirteenth TaleVida Winter is England’s most popular novelist of her time. Notoriously inventive, she has been spinning yarns about her life for six decades. When the dying author contacts Margaret Lea, a naïve bookseller in her father’s store, in an effort to finally reveal her true life story, the intrigued Margaret cannot refuse. As Margaret starts to record Vida’s story, a haunting tale of a ruined English estate, a deadly fire, wild twin girls, a governess, incest, passion, and a ghost emerges. Vida’s story, in turn, causes Margaret to consider her own life, including the loss of her conjoined twin at birth. In this gothic story of lies and family secrets, the truth transforms both Vida and Margret.
Atria. 406 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743298020

San Diego Union-Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It has elements that recall the classics: the extraordinary governess; the mad mistress; the adoration of siblings; a well-meaning doctor; interfering townsfolk; unwanted pregnancies; elopements; disappearances and returns; orphan children and mistaken identities; tragedy and evil and suspense. … Like a childhood favorite, it is timeless, charming, pure pleasure to read." Julie Brickman

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Fictional narrators tend to be ghostly figures, and Margaret is ghostlier than most, but that may be because Vida Winter remains so incandescently alive, even though she is old and her life is drawing to its close. … Those who buy and read this complex, compelling and, in the end, deeply moving novel are unlikely to feel they’ve been shortchanged." Frank Wilson

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a book-lover’s novel, with rich characters, fascinating plot twists and plenty of secluded moments infused with the soothing smell of cracking leather and old paper. … The Thirteenth Tale is a smart, thoughtful look at truth and deception: While uncovering personal truth is often unsavory, it can ultimately help draw us closer to the essence of who we really are." Jennie A. Camp

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This debut novel gets a lot of that rich bookishness right, heavy on the gothic detail and romantic suspense. … A few more hints, a little more basis for the ending, wouldn’t have spoiled this mystery." Clea Simon

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Setterfield’s erudite novel amounts to a sort of brainteaser, a literary riddle to occupy the mind rather than a new vision to inform it. … 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." Margaux Wexberg Sanchez

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The Thirteenth Tale explicitly sets out to capitalize on our longing for a good old-fashioned read but fails to deliver on precisely that. … Although [it] is nothing like either of the Brontës’ masterworks (despite being set in Yorkshire), it’s odd that the one Setterfield keeps invoking is not Wuthering Heights, which at least also deals with fierce, quasi-incestuous passions, but Jane Eyre, with which her book has even less in common." Merle Rubin

Critical Summary

The Thirteenth Tale received a reported $1 million advance in the United States and an even greater one in Britain. That, combined with comparisons of Diane Setterfield’s storytelling techniques to that of the Brontës, makes this debut novel a publicity coup of sorts. Certainly, The Thirteenth Tale—a family drama, romance, bildungsroman, mystery, and ghost story—intrigued most critics. Yet not all agreed that the novel lives up to the hype. Dazzling writing, a suspenseful story-within-a-story, and rich plot twists made an imaginative story. Some reviewers, however, cited gaps in plotting, dull characters (especially the twins), and an unexceptional ending. In end, it’s Setterfield’s old-fashioned storytelling and love for literature that makes the novel stand out.