Every once in a while, I get in the mood for a good gothic tale. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, gothic novels generally combine characteristics found in both horror and romance, such as ghosts, creepy dwellings, seemingly supernatural happenings, hereditary curses, twins or doubles, decay, and of course death.
When done right (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Picture of Dorian Gray), gothic tales can be real page-turners. When done wrong, they can end up being seemingly interminable snooze fests filled with one ridiculous plot development after another. It took me about half of the novel to find out which category Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale fit into.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Vida Winter is one of England’s most prominent novelists. Everything she pens turns into an instant bestseller, and fans can’t seem to get enough of her books. Ms. Winter is very free with her interviews, too, speaking to almost any reporter who requests a few minutes of her time. The only problem is, she tells everyone conflicting stories about her life. Therefore, no one knows anything about the real Ms. Winter — which is precisely how she wanted it until now.
Stricken by a terminal illness that is sure to take her life soon, the elderly Ms. Winter decides that she will finally tell her true life story. Towards that end, she handpicks her biographer: a lonely, quiet, 30-something woman named Margaret Lea. The choice is surprising given the fact that Margaret lives such a sheltered existence, spending most of her time at her father’s bookstore. She is a good writer, however, which is something Ms. Winter discovered after reading one of Lea’s previous biographies.
At first, Margaret doesn’t know what to make of Ms. Winter’s request, and almost decides to turn down the offer. But after reading one of Ms. Winter’s collections of short stories — titled “Thirteen Tales” despite the fact that the volume only contained twelve — Margaret becomes intrigued by the woman behind the words. She agrees to write the biography, and travels to Ms. Winter’s estate to begin the task.
The rest of the novel then deals with Ms. Winter’s life story, told slowly and, at times, a bit incomprehensibly to Margaret. Some time is also spent describing the relationship between the two women, which becomes increasingly strained as the story wears on.
My Reaction: The Thirteenth Tale began in a very intriguing fashion. I was sure that Ms. Winter’s biography was going to be nothing less than stunning after all the buildup Setterfield threw in there, and I figured Margaret would turn out to be something more than she seemed on the surface. After all, why would Ms. Winter choose her as her biographer unless there was a deeper connection?
Unfortunately, nothing much materialized from this terrific beginning. Indeed, Ms. Winter’s tale was good at times, but was far too long and boring on the whole to sustain my interest throughout the entire novel. I found myself skimming entire sections of her narrative on several occasions, and caught my mind wandering from the text on several others. When a tale that features incest, ghosts, evil children, teenage pregnancy, abandoned babies, murder, and arson becomes boring, then you know there’s a problem in the telling.
Another knock against the book is that the characters are so unsympathetic and unlikable. I figured that at least one or the other of the main protagonists (either Ms. Winter or Margaret) would be someone I could identify with, someone like Jane Eyre perhaps, since Setterfield alluded to that book so often. But that wasn’t the case at all. Both women were cold and aloof from beginning to end, making it impossible for me to like or care about either one.
Overall, I was quite disappointed with The Thirteenth Tale, especially after reading so many good reviews about it. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I didn’t think the novel was anything special, and certainly not one that I’d go out of my way to recommend.