Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review - Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by: Atria
Publication Date: September 1st, 2006
Format: Hardover, 406 Pages
Rating: ★1/2★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Margaret Lea lives a half life. Working with her father in their antiquarian bookstore she knows that at birth she was a twin. Yet the twin didn't survive. She has always felt that the day she was born was also the day she died. Always looking in mirrors and reflections wondering if that is her sister on the other side. Out of nowhere the author Vida Winter contacts her. She read a little article Margaret had wrote and thought that perhaps Margaret would be her biographer. This would be quite the opportunity to be the biographer to the woman who in every interview she has ever done has told a different biography. Nineteen in the past two years alone. But Margaret can't help being intrigued by opportunity to be the biographer to the most popular author of the age and perhaps find out what happened to the elusive Thirteenth Tale... the missing story from her first book. Margaret agrees to the dying woman's wishes and takes up residence in her Yorkshire home, provided that she tell her three truths that can be verified. The three truths are her real name, where she is from and an event that could be verified. She is really Emmeline Angelfield, from Angelfield and the house burned to the ground. Yet these truths aren't why Margaret stays, it's the fact Vida's story is about twins.

Soon Margaret is obsessed with the world of the Angelfields. The possibly incestuous and definitely masochistic brother and sister, Charlie and Isabelle. Isabelle being the mother of the twins, Adeline and Emmeline, Charlie perhaps being the father. We see the feral children raised in squaller as the Angelfield estate falls apart under the overwork hands of the Missus and John, the Gardener. There are attempts to bring them out of their twinness, speaking only in their twin language. There is Doctor and Governess involvement, but they do more bad then good when they separate the twins, making them amputees missing that which gave them life. When Margaret is not transcribing the story laboriously with pen and paper she is not eating well and having nightmares, her life consumed by the Angelfields. She even ventures to the estate and tries to ferret out their secrets. But how can you be sure you know everything when someone who has always lied, always been the storyteller, claims to be telling the truth. Might they still omit something so there is still a secret only they know?

I will warn you now, I don't usually do spoilers in my reviews. This review will contain spoilers. I need to vent and address my issues, and to that effect, a certain rather big twist (to some) will be discussed at length. For years now people have been telling me to pick up The Thirteenth Tale. The story does center on bookish people, an English country house and perhaps a ghost or two. Add to that the heavy handed name dropping of some of my favorite books from Jane Eyre to The Woman in White to The Turn of the Screw and you'd think me and this book where a perfect fit. We weren't. We not only don't fit together, I think we're from two entirely different puzzles. The titular name dropping was used by the author to force us into this mindset that her book was similar to these other wonderful Gothic Tales. Saying it, repeatedly, doesn't make it so. Just because you have plot devices that mimic events that happen in these classics doesn't mean you should keep hammering the point home. Your book will never be as good as these standards, so stop comparing them, you will always, I repeat, always, come out the loser. You need to make your own book, references are fine, just don't be so blatant.

The book hinges on the story of Miss Winter's life. Miss Winter who is shamelessly an amalgam of Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie, including all the creepy bits of Daphne Du Maurier's past that it's best not to dwell on. Miss Winter is an inveterate liar. She can never tell the truth, so when she does tell the truth there is a key fact omitted. A fact that is obvious to anyone familiar with this genre. The story about the girls, if you pay close attention shows a story of not just the mentioned twins, but a story of three girls. Yes, that is the big "secret." Three not two. The ghost is just another little girl, who happens to be a cousin or perhaps half sibling to the twins and could pass for either one of them and is probably born of rape. I should probably mention I am now going on to spoil other books for you too, The Woman in White being the first up. The "Woman in White" being the illegitimate daughter of the heroine's father, and therefore her half sibling, mimics the girls relationship to each other in The Thirteenth Tale. The evilness of the twins is seen as similar to The Turn of the Screw, while the godsend governess is Jane Eyre, oh, and of course, the house is then destroyed by fire. Here's an idea Diane Setterfield, try to write something original. Don't jumble all these other books together, reference them and then make the reader wish they where reading them instead of your choppy writing style with made up words like "twinness." Don't care if it's in the Urban Dictionary, it's not in the real one and sounds stupid.

The twinness more than anything is what got on my nerves. The changes of "We" to "I." Which I could easily see without the writer going, hey, did you see that. In fact Setterfield seemed so insecure in her own powers of weaving red herrings and hints throughout the book the she went out of the way to say "Hey, you caught that right?" and if you didn't, "Women in White, cough cough." Well, yes, I did, I'm not an idiot, by the way, I just started your book and there's three girls not two, this better not be what the next 300 pages is building up to. Of course it was. Also if I have to hear one more thing about the mystical bonds of twins I may vomit. Margaret always felt alone because she had a twin that her parents never told her about. Boo hoo, confront your parents and move on with you life. The only character I think I could spend any time with was the cat Shadow... too bad he has to live with Margaret. Also, why do you always drink hot cocoa? Don't appear to own a computer and then have a weird angel/ghost hallucination at the end? Why Margaret? WHY!?!


OOoh, I'm sure I would be just as irritated about the blatant similarities. There have been many times when I've almost picked this book up... I think I'll leave it on the bookshelf to collect some more dust. I hope you enjoy your next read. Thanks for the review!

Yes, I'd totally let this one gather dust. There are so many amazing and wonderful books out there it's just a shame when you read a real clunker.

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