I did not expect to like this book so much. Partly because back when I first saw it all over the book blogs, there was some controversy surrounding it, and that kind of put me off. Also, I usually shy away from mysteries and ghost stories, but my assumptions of what makes up those genres were not exactly what I found here.
The Thirteenth Tale revolves around the mystery of a fictional writer’s past. Vida Winter, a popular and prolific author loved by millions, always gives a different story when she is asked about her past. Not until she is elderly and in failing health does Winter intend to reveal her story, and she is selective about its recorder. Enter Margaret Lea, a young amateur biographer whose father owns an antique bookshop. Margaret has spent her life immersed in books, hiding a secret pain. Arriving at the famous author’s reclusive estate, Margaret finds that not only is she slowly unraveling the story of Winter’s origins, (and doing her own research on the side to confirm what she is told) but also coming to grips with a suppressed secret from her own past.
This is a somber story, full of dark family secrets. At one point I almost quit reading, because the implications of what happened long ago in the author’s family was so distasteful to me. But I was fascinated by the speculation of how closely connected twins can be, and the downward spiral of mental instability passed on through generations, dragging the family into decay. And of course I loved the bookishness of it all, the examination of how stories are told, the interwoven threads of the different characters’ lives, and the lovely way Setterfield uses language.
The ending of this book took me completely by surprise. I was expecting a revelation that linked all the parts of the story together, but not the one that surfaced! It made me want to go back and read the whole book again in a new light of understanding, and now I really wish another story would be written, from another character’s point of view…. It’s curious what other books The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of. The fact that it’s about a scholarly woman assisting a recluse in an old mansion reminded me of The Fire Rose. The mysteries wrapped around the house and its extensive gardens through which girls wander brought to mind The Secret Garden. And the way the Angelfield estate fell into ruin following the decay of its family made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is definitely a book I\’m going to read again someday.