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Book: The Thirteenth Tale

September 29, 2009

It seems like everyone else but me has read this book… and I can see why!

Wow, that was pretty darn good.
As usual, I remain disappointed in the spook-factor, but let me tell anyone considering whether or not to read this: READ IT. Especially if you are a book-lover, a Jane Eyre-lover, a Wuthering Heights-lover, or just plain love stories. I loved it, and it’s the sort of book that, as I mull it over, I’m loving even more as time goes on and I remember bits of story.

(I was only disappointed in the spook-factor because for some reason I was expecting something completely different from what this book actually is — it is a kind of ghost story, but mostly it’s just a plain old good story.)

This is one of those books which is very difficult to sum up, but very easy to love. A writer, Miss Margaret Lea, is contracted to write the biography of the nation’s most-beloved author, Vida Winter — an author shrouded in mystery and false ‘truths.’ As Margaret gets pulled into the story, a classic Gothic family mystery evolves. The storyteller, Vida Winter, is so compelling as a character. As Margaret gets to know her, she begins to grow attached… and so did I.

The mystery of the twin girls (Emmeline and Adeline) is twisted, crooked and puzzling. The Angelfield house is a classic haunted mansion, complete with wizened gardener and batty housekeeper. The twist at the end of the story is the sort that your mind has been puzzling out for the past few chapters but never quite got around to figuring out — and then, of course! All becomes clear.

I agree with Margaret: my favorite sorts of books are those where there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and all the loose ends are all tied up. I totally appreciate modern novels with unsolved mysteries and gnawing heartaches that go on forever… but in my heart of hearts, I just like a good story, and I like to have my mind put at ease by the last page. As Margaret puts it, “… and you can tell how long you’ve got until the end of the mystery by feeling the thickness of pages left to go.” (something like that) This book was clearly written by someone who feels that way as well. In fact, at the end, all loose ends are tidily and delightfully tied up, and I closed the book with a light heart and a smile on my face.

Which is not to say that this was a ‘light’ read at all — no, it had some pretty heavy family drama (very Gothic, as I’ve said). I really adored all the parallels to the classics so frequently mentioned. This is a book for book-lovers, clearly written by a book-lover. I understood Margaret’s and Vida’s passion for books so clearly. At one point, Vida poses a hypothetical question to Margaret: If someone, a stranger, were systematically destroying all your favorite, beloved books — every single copy in the whole world — how long would it take before you killed them to stop the destruction? Margaret implies to Vida that she would not take the stranger’s life to save the books. But she lied. And I loved that.

It’s funny that this book reminded me of some other book… or perhaps many other books… it’s like all my old favorites wrapped up and retold with a fresh twist and a wounded narrator.

While not exactly spooky (though definitely atmospheric), clearly this is a sort of ghost story, and certainly RIP-worthy. I only wish it had been cold and raining as I snuggled in front of the fire, with a large pot of tea next to me. I could have devoured it in a single day.

Has Diane Setterfield written anything else? Clearly she has promise if this was her first novel. I really loved it. I like to leave a long time before I re-read books… but I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait more than a year or two to reread this one.

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