The Thirteenth Tale (2006)

by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale is a first novel that received a lot of good press. It became No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list a week after publication.

Margaret Lea, a shy woman who works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop outside London and has published an obscure literary article, receives a surprise request from aging, reclusive author Vida Winter to write her life story. Winter is known around the world; why would she choose Margaret as her biographer? Margaret is dumbfounded but drawn in after reading Winter’s books.

Vida Winter has fabricated many versions of her life story over the years, but she says she tell Margaret the truth in her own time. Margaret is to ask no questions.

As the story unfolds, we become aware of how being a twin figures in both Margaret’s and Vida’s stories. Margaret’s twin died when they had to be separated as infants, and discovery of that fact (her parents didn’t tell her) has left her emotionally scarred. As Vida tells the story of the out-of-control children Adeline and Emmeline, readers guess that she was Adeline, growing up neglected in a crumbling mansion with mad relatives.

Vida’s story of a strange, tumultuous past is more interesting than Margaret’s, which is a problem, since she is the narrator and Setterfield clearly wanted readers to feel for both women as they confront the ghosts that haunt them. Vida’s final secret isn’t foretold and feels hard to swallow. Still, Setterfield knows how to write in the gothic tradition, and The Thirteenth Tale should satisfy readers who enjoy that genre. It sold well, and the BBC adapted it for television.


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