Posted by: Jeanie F | July 27, 2010

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Although I had expected to read only 100 pages of this book, the August reading selection for my book club, so many people put comments on my blog about how much they liked it, I decided to commit to reading it all. I have to say that right around page 100 it began to draw me in, so I may have finished it anyway. However, the enthusiastic reviews that it received from other readers was a great incentive.

A number of reviews compared this novel to some of the great gothic novels: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Woman in White to name a few. That, in my opinion, was a bit of an oversell, but I can easily see why so many people enjoyed this book.

The Thirteenth Tale is written as a story within a story. The “frame” is the tale of a young woman, Margaret Lea, who is contacted by Vida Winter, a famous author, to write her biography. Margaret doesn’t seem to be the most logical choice since she has never written a biography, but she has written biographical essays, most notably one on a pair of brothers who co-authored a diary. It was this essay that led Ms. Winter to Margaret in the belief that Margaret had a special interest in siblings.

The story within the frame is the life of not only Vida Winter, née Adeline Angelfield, but her twin sister, Emmaline. Both Margaret and Ms. Winter have dark secrets in their past which comprise the mystery that unfolds in their work together. To give you more information would deprive you of the pleasure of reading this book.  

Vida Winter’s story is the story worth telling and, for me, should be the only story told. The artificial frame of Margaret’s life in her parent’s sad home, her own secret past, etc. is a distraction that drags the story down. Setterfield might well have done better to tell the straightforward story of the Angelfields without the unsuccessful attempt to wrap a mystery within a mystery. I’m really sorry, fellow bloggers who loved this book, but that just didn’t work for me. I found myself impatiently skimming all of the “modern day” (although the author was unnecessarily coy about the exact time period) events in order to get back to the more interesting family history of the Angelfields.

Further, I have maintained my impression that the book is wordy and over-written. I’ve given one example in my previous blog about this novel. I could give countless more, but I’ll stick with just this one:

At Miss Winter’s house I never looked at the clock. For seconds I had words, minutes were lines of pencil script. Eleven words to the line, twenty-three lines to the page was my new chronometry. At regular intervals I stopped to turn the handle of the pencil sharpener and watch curls of lead-edged wood dangle their way to the wastepaper basket; these pauses marked my “hours.”

Strangely, there is much less of this pointless verbosity within Ms Winter’s part of the story. It is more direct, more interesting, and builds upon itself in a much more satisfying way. If that were true for the entire novel, I would have enjoyed it much more.

Grade: C-


  1. I’m actually visiting from the Hop but enjoyed your review of the Thirteenth Tale. This book showed up on a lot of people’s Top Tens last week but I agree more with your assessment. It was a fun read but I couldn’t say a great book.

    Hope you’ll visit me at (I’m a WP blog too!)

  2. Great review and I could not agree more!

  3. Book club this Wednesday. So I started the thirteenth tale this morning. Gave up at the description of Ms Winter in the library – the first meeting. There is gothic and there is bad writing. This is bad writing.

    At least it gives me Wednesday evening back! I shall suggest Stoner, which I’ve just finished, for one of our reads. If you haven’t read it, please do. It is deceptively simple and low-key. Absolutely beautiful.

    • I’ve had Stoner on my shelf and on my TBR list for a long time. Thanks for the reminder! I’ll definitely pull it down as I am abandoning my book club, too – The Seamstress, which is 600 pages long, and I can’t get interested in it. Thanks for your comment!

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