The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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Part ghost story and part mystery, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (published 2006) captures the power of stories and books in a lonely life.  Amateur biographer Margret Lea is invited to write the story of Vita Winter, aging popular writer with more than fifty published works to her name. Although the two women are very different and begin as strangers, as the novel progresses and their friendship grows, their stories come together. They have much  more in common than they realized, and it all goes back to the universal power of stories.

It was a perfect read for a windy, rainy fall evening.I loved the book talk, and the way classic novels were seamlessly integrated in the story (see a full list here): Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, Lady Audley’s Secret, The Woman in White. I could really relate to Margaret, who loves these books. She says,

I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings… Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels. (page 29)

In some respects, the story was a retelling of some of these sensational novels of the eighteenth century. Mistaken identities, hidden people, ghosts, fires, walking on the moors in sleety rain. So much of Margaret’s experiences are seen through a lenses of a novel that when she faints, the doctor takes matters into his own hands. No more Victorian sensation novels!

I reached for the prescription. In a vigorous scrawl, he had inked: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course. (page 303)

It was fun to read Ms Setterfield’s creation, because it is obvious that she, like me, loves the classic books, those with “proper” endings. She wanted to create her own sensation novel, and I think she did a great job. I didn’t want to put it down.

When I share thoughts on a book I’ve read, I normally spend a few sentences sharing the flaws in the book and explaining which things didn’t work for me. The Thirteenth Tale was not immune; it was a flawed book. In some senses it was superficial, and the end wasn’t quite as satisfying as Mr Wilkie Collins’ novels are (although I obviously have a bias!). I also tend to like my books to be explainable by natural means (rather than by ghosts). But because I read for the pure enjoyment factor, I struggle now to fault the book. It was a fun journey, and that is why I read it: for fun.

I’m hosting a book club meeting on this book next week. Although I won’t be leading the discussion, I do provide refreshments. If you’ve read the book, what foods stood out to you? This seemed to be a book rather devoid of strong food images, and I’m hoping for some ideas. Of course, if I can’t find something book related, I’ll just make some yummy treats and we’ll still be happy…

Reviewed on November 4, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Wow! I have to say I’m really surprised you liked this one. I read it back in 2008, and I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel like the sort of modern book I would have recommended to you if I were going to choose something. Just goes to show how off-base our recommendations are sometimes, right?

    I just went back and read my review of this and it’s very scattered. In one way, I liked it, but I could only like it if I kept in mind that it wasn’t meant to be literary at all, just fun. I had a harder time doing that in 2008…

    • Amanda, That’s interesting you thought I wouldn’t like it! In some respects, I think it was just perfect timing for me. I’ve been reading lots of Victorian literature but my brain is tired and wanted something light and non-literary. And then my husband was out of town, the wind was blowing, the house was chilly, and I could just cuddle down with a ghosty book! I also loved the book talk, and just plain read for fun, so that’s why it worked for me.

  • I really enjoyed the book — and especially all of the times some of my favorite books were discussed. As far as food for your book club…I can’t really recall the food part of it, but I’d probably hedge my bets that some scones would be a nice add to the night. Those are always just yummy…

  • I’m with Amanda – I never thought you’d like this book! Back when I read this I really enjoyed it but it hasn’t really stayed with me since then. Like you said, this seems to be a “just for fun” book.

    I don’t have any food ideas for you but I recently found a blog that specializes in food ideas for book clubs. Not sure if they have a list specifically for this book but you could check:

  • So glad you enjoyed this book, Rebecca. I guess it had just the right Victorian vibe to it and wasn’t too Gothic to turn you off! I resisted reading this one when it first came out because everyone loved it so much, but when I did finally pick it up, I didn’t want to put it down. It was one of those books that just really sucked me in. I think your book club will have plenty to discuss with it, too!

  • I thought this was a wonderfully atmospheric book and made me want to go back and read the classics that were mentioned (and to put Lady Audley’s Secret on my wishlist as I hadn’t read that one). I think I read it in a couple of sittings. Perfect for a dark winter’s night.

  • I really loved this book, I thought it was a great and creepy story. Glad to hear you liked it for fun at least. As for treats… I’m not really sure to be honest! Sorry I’m no help.

  • I loved all of the book love in this book! It seems like Aurelius talks about a cake that Mrs. Love taught him to make that he gives to Margaret when they first meet at Angelfield, but I can’t remember if they said it was a certain kind. All in all, Margaret seemed rather anorexic.

  • I read this one a few years ago and like you I had a lot of fun with it. I remember there was something about the ending that didn’t quite work for me either, but I’m not even sure what anymore.

  • I so nearly picked this up to read just the other day! Delighted to hear you give it a positive review. It is certainly a book that’s been calling my name for a while now!

  • I think I’ll save this novel for next October, then read it for Halloween. It sounds like it would be nice to have some of the classics under my belt first! (Yes, I know…I’ve never read Jane Eyre OR The Woman in White!)

    The blog posted by Heather J. looks like it has some good food suggestions, but my other thought would be: are there any dishes you associate with the classics Setterfield seems to love? That might be a fun way to approach it!

  • I enjoyed the homage to Victorian sensationalism too, although I don’t think she’s got anything on Wilkie. 😉

    I remember the cake from the book; that’s the only food that jumps out at me though! Well, and tea with cream and sugar of course. 😉

  • I didn’t love this book, because as you say, the ending’s not completely satisfying, but when it’s a particular season and I’m in a particular mood, it’s so satisfying and fun.

    • Jenny, interesting how so many of us had issues with the end but are okay with just ignoring it! I can’t even say why the end was unsatisfying. It just was. It was a fun mood book. Perfect for this season.

  • Hot chocolate is a must for the refreshments. Must be made as Margaret makes it – with milk. Mentioned more than any other drink I’ve noticed so far, or sweet tea. hahahaa
    Just bring short bread cookies or sugar cookies in the shape of ghosts.

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