Books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield

This is another book that was recommended to me, and… it wasn’t terrible, but… I had a difficult time staying interested. Which is strange given the author works very hard to make everything mysterious. Maybe she tries too hard?

I’m not sure I can accurately describe my feelings about this book. Let’s start with the story itself. Margaret Lea is the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer, and she helps her father in his shop. Her mother is an invalid, and the family has a secret: Margaret was born with a conjoined twin who, when cut free, died. They all pretend it never happened, but the “ghost” is there, so to speak. In fact, Margaret spends an almost ridiculous amount of time dwelling on this ghost, which is very real to her. And perhaps I’m being insensitive? But I just couldn’t feel anything about this. Maybe because Margaret herself has very little personality. I suspect this is by design, since Margaret narrates the novel, and her job is to actually tell someone else’s story. If her character were too strong, the other story would fail to shine through. It’s a delicate kind of balance, quite the undertaking by Setterfield. But Margaret is nothing more than lightly tinted glass, and that prevented me somewhat from being fully invested in her or her story.

Margaret sometimes writes little biographies of authors. These are nothing more than tracts, really, but a famous author named Vida Winter notices them and asks Margaret to come stay at her house in Yorkshire so as to write her life story. Miss Winter is known for telling many lies about her past, but she’s old and ill now, and wants to have the truth recorded for posterity or something. So then we get a different story about twin girls growing up in very strange circumstances, &tc. &tc.

And somehow this story isn’t actually all that compelling either. It’s odd, no lie, and there are twists, though I suspected as much if only because I had friends tell me they’d read this book more than once. And it’s the kind of book where, if someone reads it more than once, you conclude it must be because they want to re-read based on some new knowledge. You know, like when you watch a movie that has a big twist, you then want to watch it again and look for all the clues? As I was reading this book, the only reason I could imagine anyone would have for reading it again would be that. Of course, I’m sure many people like it well enough to want to read it for the pleasure of it, but… Overall, it felt somewhat lacking to me. It introduced many characters and pretended to delve when, in fact, we’re left with only slices of information and/or personalities. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone intimately, except maybe Margaret, and she’s the least interesting one.

It’s not a bad book. I gave it three stars, which is to say, it’s average. There are things that I’m sure will stay with me. But overall, for me, this one was just okay. And I did feel like I had to drag myself back to it now and then because the story didn’t light a need in me to keep reading. “Idle,” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. If I hadn’t finished it, I might have idly wondered what happened in the story. The prose itself feels idle, languid. There is no urgency in it, and therefore no urgency was created in me to read, to finish, to find out. So much description… but so very little actual tale.

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I saw after finishing this book that Setterfield also wrote Bellman & Black, another book once recommended to me. That one I was never able to get into; I made it maybe thirty pages in? So perhaps this author just isn’t for me.