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The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

March 5, 2011

A reclusive, bestselling author commissions our heroine to write her biography.  The two women come to loggerheads about how the story should be told almost immediately.  Margaret, the biographer (no relation to me) thinks there is more to Vida Winter than meets the eye and is determined to get to the root of the mystery whether Winter likes it or not.   What is Winter’s real name?  Where did she come from?  And where is the thirteenth tale, Winter’s fabled short story that was never published?

The first thing you will notice on starting to read this book is the Gothic use of language.  Margaret is a moody and shy lady who spends almost all of her time working in a bookshop.  A couple of pages into the book, Margaret takes a couple of paragraphs to describe a billboard by the road.  What is this? I thought.  Is Setterfield trying to write a twenty-first-century Jane Eyre here?

The answer is yes.  Big, old British mansions abound in this book, alongside ghosts, storms, madness, intrigues with the servants, illegitimate children, and, of course, a fire.  The Thirteenth Tale is an homage to the greats of the nineteenth century, which it references throughout the text.  Vida Winter’s favorite book is Jane Eyre.

That ultimately causes The Thirteenth Tale some problems.  It’s a good story, with a nice mystery and a satisfying surprise at the end.  But when you position yourself that close to Jane Eyre, how can you possibly measure up?

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