“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield. New York : Washington Square Press, 2006.
Reclusive authors, young biographers, and the great storied tradition of English gentility is brought together in this delightfully gothic novel by Diane Setterfield. Pitch perfect for the season, the reader will be swept away into this haunting story.
Margaret Lea is a lover of books, and is content working in her father’s bookshop, until one day a letter for her appears. Written by the famous and reclusive Vida Winter, the letter requests one thing: that Margaret come meet Ms. Winters and learn the truth about the author’s early life with an eye towards writing her biography. Margaret is at first put off: Why would Vida Winter want Margaret to be her biographer? How did Ms. Winter even find her, hidden away in her father’s bookshop? Moreover, why would Margaret want to write the biography of this aging writer whose books she had not even read?
Thus begins the tale within which another story is woven. Vida Winter is a pen name used by the prolific author of 56 novels of contemporary fiction and one book of short stories that was originally released with the title “Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation”. However, only 12 stories were published in that book, which was subsequently recalled and retitled. Thus the mystery of the thirteenth tale was born.
As Margaret is drawn first to the mystery of the thirteenth tale, so too is the reader drawn into the story of this family. As Vida tells the tale to Margaret, the reader is drawn deeper into the history of the family, moving backwards through time in order to understand the backstory of this recluse. As Margaret begins to think she sees the ending of the story, the reader also believes they know the conclusion, although enough stray ends appear throughout to keep the intrigue level high.
As the deep layers of mystery lead the reader deeper into the book itself, the mystery of Margaret’s past, which she shares with the reader early on, is only a hint of what is to come. The mystery of Vida Winter’s past is even more convoluted, and the reader will end up second-guessing any assumptions made as the story unfolds. This book is a perfect atmospheric read for fall, and will be enjoyed by both readers of traditional gothic romances as well as more contemporary mystery novels.
Deana Cunningham is the Associate Director of Operations for Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.