Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

29 November, 2012 Reviews 16 comments

Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Series: Standalone
Published by Atria Books on September 12th 2006
Pages: 406
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.

It was inevitable, I suppose.  I’ve had a rather good run of stories lately, but I knew that it wouldn’t last forever.  I was eventually going to write a review that wasn’t all gushing praise and happy adjectives.

And here I am.  I must say that I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.  I really thought that The Thirteenth Tale was going to be excellent, because it has so many interesting storytelling ideas stuffed into its pages.  Setterfield fills her novel with ghosts, decrepit mansions, mysterious fires, twins, and more.  Throw in the fact that this is a book that is essentially about books (similar to Inkheart) and you would think that I had a guaranteed winner on my hands.

Not so, unfortunately.

This isn’t a very hefty read.  Setterfield’s writing flows with an easily accessible quality, and the pages fly by as a result.  Yet it felt far too long.  By the time that I finished the first half of the book, I was impatient for it to end, and the final chapters were a real chore to read.

The problem, I think, is that I never felt any sort of connection with the characters or their stories.  That isn’t to say that the plot isn’t interesting.  It is.  The events that unfold do manage to keep you invested, the mystery that is central to the novel filled with plenty of compelling puzzles and enticing twists.  Yet the whole affair feels curiously distant.  It’s as though the reader, instead of becoming a part of the world that the author has created, is never anything more than an observer behind a pane of glass.  You are very much aware, at all times, that what you are reading is a piece of fiction, and this knowledge prevents you from seeing beyond the paper and ink.

I attribute this primarily to the fact that the vast majority of the novel is structured as a story within a story, with Margaret relaying to the reader the tale that Miss Winter is having her write.  This format, consequently, makes both of the primary narrations, despite being in first person, feel too removed to have any real emotional impact.  Winter’s account, being nestled within another, is often interrupted by Margaret’s, and so the reader has no real chance to lose his or herself in it.  I hate to repeat myself, but I feel it appropriate to compare this situation once more to the role of a spectator who is consciously detached from what is occurring.  Margaret’s tale, meanwhile, is given so little time in between Winter’s that it never really takes on a life of its own.  As a consequence, it feels tacked on and almost unnecessary, intruding upon the more important events.  Considering that this is the main character that I am referring to, this is certainly an issue.

Margaret in general is a hard protagonist to connect with.  Her role as biographer for Winter, and her aforementioned lack of a substantial storyline, makes her little more than a transparent and obvious setup that Setterfield uses as an excuse to explore Winter’s character to a greater degree.  And while I appreciate her love of literature and reading (the sections in which she explores and explains this passion are the most enjoyable of the bunch), she too often comes across as pretentious and overdramatic.  She repeatedly mentions the projects and hobbies that she undertakes, and mulls over childhood tragedies and losses.  Neither of these tendencies would be an issue if they weren’t the only things that substantially define her, and the fact that they are gives her the qualities of a soap opera character as a result.  She has too many unique characteristics, and she spends too much time mourning her past. This is an odd thing to say, but she is, quite frankly, too interesting.

Other characters are less frustrating, but they not given enough attention or detail to really become anything more than curiosities.  The only other primary player here, Miss Winter, is developed through her narration-within-a-narration, which suffers from not only emotional distance, but from a last-minute plot twist that completely subverts almost everything that the reader has learned about the woman up until that point.  What’s left afterwards is the plain fact that you know very little of her character, and the author consequently introduces last-minute details in an attempt to compensate for this.  Yet it only feels forced and unsatisfying.

It’s a shame, because the story that Setterfield tells here is really quite intriguing.  The atmosphere is one of gloom and dust, of secrets and the macabre.  The sudden reveals are both deliciously creepy and, for the most part, satisfying.  The problem comes in the final act of the novel, when the author decides to explain everything all at once through several lengthy monologues.  It’s an unfair and lazy way out – Setterfield spends most of the novel introducing and furthering these mysteries, but solves them in a way that feels rushed and unnatural.  It’s the equivalent of the villain explaining the entirety of his dastardly scheme to the hero in one breath.  As someone who finished the book solely to find out how everything was explained, I felt cheated.  Rather than owing to a lack of resolution, however, my impression of fraud stems from the fact that there was simply too much of it.

On a final note: the writing.  To be honest, I was expecting more.  It’s clear that Setterfield was striving for a lush, haunting style of prose that would complement her story’s Victorian mood, but her words comes across as incomplete and only partially realized.  There are some good portions, but others are too simplistic and too repetitive, which becomes annoying very quickly.


To Conclude…

To bring this review to a close, I will say this: The Thirteenth Tale is not a bad book.  Unfortunately, neither is it a great one.  It is a novel that contains a great concept and some wonderful ideas, but does little with them.  If the synopsis interests you, I recommend giving it a try.  It may not earn a spot on your list of favorite reads (though it appears to be loved by many, so maybe it’s just mine that it failed to make), but it’s certainly worth a brief visit, forgettable though it may be.

Paul Beimers

Paul Beimers

Reviewer at Cuddlebuggery
A reviewer, blogger and trope enthusiast who isn't nearly as consistent with his reading as he should be.

16 Responses to “Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield”

  1. nrlymrtl

    Very interesting. I finished this book back in October and really enjoyed it. I did the audioversion and found it quite haunting. I wonder if the narrators could be the difference. Still, it was interesting to read your review and I can see where you are coming from.

    • PBeimers

      @nrlymrtl An interesting idea!  I’ve never “read” an audiobook, so I have no notion of what the experience is like.  Now that I think about it, though, this novel does seem to contain a story that may be more suited to a medium other than the traditional printed one.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I ended up preferring, in this instance at least, your method to mine.  That is, of course, if I decided to give this book a rereading, which I’m not entirely sure I would be willing to do anytime soon.

      • nrlymrtl

        @PBeimers  If you haven’t done audio before, you could check out a favorite book in audio format from the library and see how you like it. Some folks think they are 2 distracting, or they zone out. I listen to audios a lot because it keeps me sane during commutes and boring house chores. For this book, the 2 lady readers were excellent and added pain and sorrow to the story.

  2. ChrissyW

    I, too, enjoyed this book but I thought it was way too wordy. It took a long time to get through the first half of the book. The story itself was very interesting and was what kept me reading the book until the end.

    • PBeimers

      @ChrissyW I agree with you, Chrissy.  I think that Setterfield was trying a bit too hard with her writing, which caused it to seem forced at times.  And, like you, I finished the book primarily because of the story, as I was very curious to see how everything would be explained in the end.

  3. Renae M

    I keep debating this one. The back cover blurb sounds like something I’d probably enjoy, but it seems like I’ve come across more negative reviews for this than otherwise. The lack of substance in Margaret as a character is definitely a drawback. It’s always hard for me to read a book where the characters aren’t fully fleshed out.

    • PBeimers

      @Renae M If the blurb is interesting enough for you, Renae, I recommend that you at least give it a try!  You may very well end up enjoying it a good deal more than I did.  If nothing else, you’ll likely find it to be an interesting story that doesn’t require too much time or effort to get through.

  4. EscapeInABook

    I’m sorry to see that this book wasn’t all that to you, Paul. I listened to the audiobook last year and I fell head over heels for this story. It was very interesting to read your thoughts on Margaret, I did not consider the things you brought up while reading the story myself but when you mentioned it in your review I could see that you were right. We don’t know that much about her at all.
    I felt that The Thirteen Tale was very Kate Mortonish in its telling and Morton’s own The Distant Hours reminded me very much of this story. It would have been interesting to hear your thoughts on Morton’s book and see wheter or not your feel that she is more sucsessful with this kind of story than Setterfield.
    Have a great weekend!

    • PBeimers

      Hmm.  Your comment makes two that mention listening to the audio version of this book.  I wonder if this is just one of those stories that is more enjoyable in a format that isn’t print.
      I have never heard of Kate Morton, but a quick look at “The Distant Hours” makes me think that you’re comparison of it to “The Thirteenth Tale” is an astute one.  I may have to give it a try!

      • LiterallyJen

        @PBeimers I love Kate Morton and have read every single one of her books–except for The Distant Hours. I started it, and just couldn’t get into it; I gave up after quite a chunk of the book. My order of favorite to least favorite is: The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper, and House at Riverton. Hope you do try her, and that you love her work.

  5. cynicalsapphire

    Paul, it’s too bad this one failed to resonate with you. I hate when that happens for me, because, no matter how good the idea and the story, if I feel nothing whatsoever for the characters, that damns the book to being at best mediocre.
    When I first read this book in undergrad, I ate it up. On the reread, though, I was much less impressed than I had been on the first go-round.  I still enjoyed it, but I found issues where I didn’t before. Unlike you, I didn’t have a problem connecting to Margaret, but I’ve always had a weak spot for bookish heroines. What really threw me the second time was the ending where the book suddenly decided to take on a paranormal bent that I found cheesy and entirely unnecessary.
    Hopefully your next read will fit you better!

    • PBeimers

      @cynicalsapphire I love bookish characters as well (Meggie from the “Inkworld” trilogy and Hermione from the “Harry Potter” series come to mind), so I certainly understand your position.  I did my best to articulate why I dislike this book and its protagonist in my review, but, to be honest, I’m not entirely confident that I was able to properly explain what it is that I didn’t like about the latter.  There was just something about Margaret that failed to connect with me, something that I have trouble putting into words.  Regardless, the story as a whole fell flat because of this.
      As for the paranormal angle that Setterfield included, I really don’t think much of it.  However, I think this may be because the book seemed to exude a sense of the supernatural from the very beginning, and so I wasn’t entirely surprised when that aspect came to the forefront in the end. Then again, it could also have something to do with the fact that I had read a few reviews prior to reading the novel that mentioned the genre shift, and so I was prepared for it well before it actually occurred!

  6. The Hipster Owl's Bookshelf

    Paul, I think this is the first review of yours I’ve come across in this site!  But then again, I’m still fairly new ;)))Hmmm…I work at Barnes & Noble, and keep running into this book. At first the cover looked dull to me, but your review actually made me curious to read it!  XD  hehe   I’m hoping maybe the plot line itself will be interesting enough to give it a good skim at least, even if the writing is kinda “blah”.  Oh well…  Still, thanks for the great review!! :)))

  7. Dorothy von Gerbig

    You gave voice to most of my uneasiness about this book, but the re was one other, and I’m not at all sure where it comes from.

    At one point the narrator talks about how books “talk to each other,” and I have to say I came across passages that I swear I’ve read before. Kind of a deja vu. I read this for a book discussion group, and I was hoping to find someone who found the same misgivings I had, so for me, your review is “right on,” except for the creepy familiarity.

  8. KookyNeady

    I only read this book recently and it did start off quite promising. However as it progressed, I found myself disliking Margaret more and more. I didn’t really have an idea why I disliked her and then I thought about it. To me, she just seems to lack empathy for anyone around her. She ignores everyone apart from her father and Vida Winters. She doesn’t even think of her mother as being a human being. There’s no mention of any friends which would have given her more dimensions. She runs headlong into situations and is totally self obsessed. Not the type of behavior that you would expect from an introvert. It’s been a long time since I’ve thoroughly disliked a protagonist but she is one of the worst characters I’ve ever read!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge