Daily Archives: October 8, 2009

Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth TaleMy rating: 4.5 of 5 stars



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. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.

I enjoyed every minute of The Thirteenth Tale. It was pleasantly spooky, and (for most of the book) beautifully ambiguous: Ghosts? Insanity? (yes, but whose?). The plot twisted and turned. I’d think I knew where it was heading, and then it would veer away.

And yes, I love books featuring books, and this one is no exception. Starting with Margaret in her father’s used bookstore, exploring Miss Winters’ library, catching the allusions to classic books… I wish I remembered Jane Eyre more from reading it 15+ years ago. I wish I’d read Rebecca. I’m sure there were more references I was missing.

I found the exploration of family fascinating. Twins are a recurring theme,as are dysfunctional mothers.

Both Margaret and Ms. Winters were great characters, drawing me into each of their lives. The other characters were fascinating, even if often not people I’d want to know.

Normally, characters are the most important part of a book to me. I liked the characters in The Thirteenth Tale, but what really made the book for me were the twists and turns of the plot and the overall feeling of creepiness.

I read The Thirteenth Tale with my Book Club M.  We all enjoyed it, and we had a great discussion. We stayed on topic for our entire discussion period, better than we have in many months. The literary references led to a side topic of what classics we’d read at what times in our lives, and what we’d be interested in rereading now.

We did make use of the two sets of discussion questions I found. The first was the publisher’s reading guide, available on many sites. The second was from


Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Book Club, books, M, reviews


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