The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Oct 14, 2016

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to be a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, What Should I Read Next? The show, hosted by Anne Bogel (aka, Modern Mrs. Darcy) works like this: the guest shares three books she loves, one book she hates, and what she's currently reading, and then Anne comes up with three recommendations that hopefully fit the reader's bookish tastes.

When I was on the podcast, one of the books I shared as a favorite was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It's been nearly four years since I read it (so time for a reread, I think), and I still can't think of it without remembering the wide range of emotions I felt while reading it. It's one of the most visceral reading experiences I've ever had, and I specifically chose to mention it on the podcast because I wanted help finding something that would give me that same sort of reading experience again.

The book Anne came up with was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Before she revealed what it was, she said something like, "I have a great book to recommend, but I'm just sure you've already read it because it's so perfect for you." Well, I hadn't read it, but I was nonetheless very familiar with the title because many of my friends had read it, loved it, and then recommended it with a bunch of caveats. And it was those caveats that always held me back.

But after Anne recommended it, I decided to just read it and see for myself.

And now I get it. I see why everyone liked/loved it, and I also see why all the reviews came with reservations. I'll get to all that in a minute.

But first, the story itself. Margaret Lea is a quiet, solitary woman. She lives and works in her father's bookshop, which is also a quiet, solitary place, and that suits her just fine. As you might expect, she is quite fond of books and reads a lot. However, she sticks mainly with classics and biographies and has very little interest in popular fiction.

So of course she is very surprised when she receives a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous authoress, who requests that Margaret write her biography. Ms. Winter is in her seventies and quite ill, and although everyone knows and loves her books, her actual life is cloaked in mystery. Many reporters have tried to get it out of her over the years, and she always obliges them with a fantastic and captivating story, but it's always just that . . . a story.

Margaret can't figure out why, after all these years, Vida Winter is requesting someone to write her biography, and why that someone should be her. But after reading (and rather embarrassingly, devouring) one of Vida Winter's books, she decides to accept the invitation. However, she goes in with her guard up. She is determined to sniff out the truth and not be pulled in by another one of Vida Winter's tales.

Before they begin, Margaret has one requirement: she asks for three facts from Vida Winter's life that she will be able to corroborate with outside sources. Ms. Winter gives those three facts and then sets down a rule of her own: "Beginnings, middles and endings, all in the correct order. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions." In other words, she demands to tell her story in her own way.

A truce is reached, and the story begins. It is fascinating, captivating, mesmerizing. And, as it turns out, it is not just Vida Winter confronting the pain and secrets of her past, but Margaret, too.

I'll have to stop there because I'm trying to be very careful not to give away too much. So far, I've just laid the barest framework and haven't even hinted at the details or characters of the actual story, and I'm going to leave it that way. The essence of this story is its mystery. If I take that away, even in a small way, the life would just go out of it.

In the book, Margaret describes the excitement of discovery this way: "One element at a time, taking all the different angles separately, I reviewed everything I knew. Everything I had been told and everything I had discovered. Yes, I thought. And yes, again. That, and that, and that, too. My new knowledge blew life into the story. It began to breathe. And as it did so, it began to mend. The jagged edges smoothed themselves. The gaps filled themselves in. The missing parts were regenerated. Puzzles explained themselves, and mysteries were mysteries no longer."

I love that description because I've had very similar experiences with stories before (this being one of them). Having all those questions and unknowns and twists and turns suddenly come into sharp focus is one of the things I loved most about Rebecca, and it's what made me enjoy this book as well. I wouldn't spoil that for anyone for the world.

So even though I'm not going to talk about the plot any further, there are still a couple of things I want to address.

First, when readers recommend this book with a good dose of caution, they're right to do so. As you might expect from a Gothic suspense novel, there are some dark, I would even say disturbing, themes. They're essential to the story, but that doesn't make them any easier to read about, especially when they come back to you at 2am, as one of them did to me.

It's really, really tricky to review a book with difficult or disturbing content because it's easy to over-focus on the uncomfortable parts. On one hand, this is good because it means future readers will go into the book with their eyes open. On the other hand, it can give a false representation of the actual story and the overall feeling and just how big those moments really are.

For my part, I always appreciate it when I know about mature content ahead of time, but it's also hard because, even with the warning, I still don't really know what its effect on me will be. Of course, if there's any doubt or hesitation, just don't read it (there are plenty of other good books to choose from), but I will say that in the case of this book, the disturbing acts are not gratuitous or glorified in any way. They are repulsive, as they should be. (And now, after that glowing recommendation, I'm sure you're all rushing out to read it--feel free to talk to me about it if you want more specifics.)

The second thing I wanted to mention is just that even though I liked this book and was completely immersed in it from the beginning, it was no match for Rebecca. There are similarities for sure, and I can definitely see why Anne would recommend this to someone who loved Rebecca, but it wasn't the same.

For example, both books are extremely well written, but I love the writing style of Rebecca more. Both books have dark themes, but Rebecca's are less disturbing (although feel free to debate me on that one). Both books have a strong sense of place, but I would much rather go to Manderley than Angelfield. Both books have striking and vibrant characters, but . . . this is the big one for me. With Rebecca, I felt deeply invested in the narrator as well as Maxim de Winter. But with The Thirteenth Tale, something was missing for me, even with Ms. Winter and Margaret, and especially with one character in particular--a character who seems well-loved by so many, and yet, I couldn't find anything lovable about her. I'm actually not convinced that the reader was supposed to love her in the same way that the characters in the book did, but still, it was a real problem for me and actually is the reason, more than anything else that I mentioned above, that I just didn't love this book as much as Rebecca.

There's so much to discuss with this book though, and so I'm dying to talk to someone who has read it. If you have, let's chat because I have some questions and issues to work through.

I'm sure this review has given you a mixed impression of the book, and that's probably kind of accurate because I honestly came away with rather mixed feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'm glad I read it, and it was a perfect read for this time of year, but is it going on my favorites list? That remains to be seen.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Actually, let's just go have lunch and talk about it! And what would be your recommendation for someone who loved Rebecca and wants to read something similar?


  1. You know I'm ready to chat about this book! Maybe email me, so no spoilers are in the comments. :) Talk to you soon!

  2. I think you've convinced me, despite the caveats, to make this my October read this year (since my other choice isn't panning out). I'd love to chat about it when I'm through!


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