Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Title The Thirteenth Tale
Author Diane Setterfield
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating C+

Summary Margaret Lea is a quiet, bookish young lady who helps her dad run a seemingly inauspicious rare books shop in England, and she does a little biography-ing as a vanity project on the side. But suddenly she is right in the middle of many people's fantasies when the renowned author Vida Winter solicits her solitary assistance in writing her biography. Vida is a noted recluse, and Margaret would be crazy to pass up this opportunity, but she worries that finding out Vida's beginnings will make her have to come to face her own.

First Line "All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story," (Front Matter).

Review This book was very meta for book lovers. The passages about the power of stories, the writing process, and reading to the point where you lose yourself in a book were charming to read. However, I know there are a fair number of people who don't like to read fiction books about books. (That's definitely not me.) But if that's you, then I say: This book isn't about books, it's about personal stories, intrigue, mystery, family, and so much more.

This book is written (largely) as Vida Winter telling Margaret Lea a bunch of stories, and you're learning them right along with Margaret. I found myself engrossed in the storytelling. The stories were far from happy or bright (much of this book takes the form of a modern re-interpretation of Jane Eyre with its gothic themes and motifs), but it was definitely rich. The settings were robust (you saw them with your own inner eye), the feelings were deep and often painful, and the characters were so conflicted and confusing that you were bound to them.

But by way of justifying my "C+" rating, let me just say that this book wasn't absolutely perfect. One thing I struggled with was that I couldn't get a firm grip on a timeline or people's ages. I didn't know when the current story was happening in time. Was it 2006 and the narrator is just a little bit of a lover of old-fashioned things? This is plausible, but equally plausible is that Vida was telling her story to Margaret in the 70's or 80's. Twenty to thirty years makes a good bit of difference. I assume it's older because Vida references a time when a governess comes and looks after the teenage girls, and some anachronistic goings-on in the old time village, but it's never clear. I found that to be difficult in so much that the ending didn't fully resolve because I was unsure as to how the final characters would live (simply because I had no idea how much longer they would be living).

Another thing that bothered me is that the "original" theme of this book (apart from themes borrowed from Jane Eyre) was the profound power of being a twin. The idea that when your twin is taken from you (through death or the meddling of a governess and/or town doctor), you lose half of your own soul. The imagery that Setterfield used to create this idea, and her repetition of this situation, got to be irritating. It did not speak to me (perhaps because I'm not a twin, nor have I ever known twins to speak in this manner) and distracted from the major moving of the book. Other characters in the book (namely the titular mother and uncle) were not twins, but were still able to experience a profound (and perhaps disturbing) bond. The element of being a twin was, in my opinion, not necessary to the success of this book, but was focused on so extensively that it detracted from the otherwise redeeming qualities.

However, that aside, this book of a story within a story (and a little mystery that you can try to figure out along the way) was positively charming, was written with rich language, and well worth the read.

Recommendation Fans of books with intrigue, romance, family dramas (and writing) as themes, such as Atonement, are likely to enjoy this book.


Bluestocking said...

Interesting. The time thing didn't really bother me at all. I'm not sure it was necessary to the plot.

I thought the whole twin thing was what made it so interesting. Yes it did dominate the plot, but I think that being a multiple probably is profoundly different experience. I think some times they do see each other as a half of a whole.

La Coccinelle said...

Nice review. I could never put my finger on the time period, either. I assumed it took place a while ago, though, since Margaret hired professionals to track people down. Had it been set in the present day, I would have expected her to use the Internet!

Kabo said...

I had problems w/ the fuzzy timeline also. I think the author may have been trying to create a sense of timelessness or another mystery. Either way, I found it distracting.

Thought the first part of the novel was rather slow, but it began to pick up in the middle. I was thoroughly immersed in the last 3rd of the book.