The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Putting on Eyres
I was unlucky enough to have read The Thirteenth Tale in my book club. Reading this book made me wonder, what are the elements that inform the reader that a book is meant to be realistic and plausible, or that the reader is meant to suspend disbelief to allow for supernatural elements, and why is Setterfield’s attempt to balance these two approaches not wholly successful?
The style is nouveau gothic, replete with madness, incest, rape, illegitimate births, “ghosts,” arson, murder and, above all, Keeping Secrets, set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, with plenty of nods to the literary inspirations of the genre, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White. You can practically hear the creaking doors, whistling wind, and crashing notes on the organ as you read.
I found the story’s resolution to be completely contrived, sentimental, and implausible. At least Vida Winter, did have an interesting story, even if her telling of it was exceedingly coy. Unlike the whiny Margaret who has spent most of her life trying to work herself into a romantic hysteria over the loss of her own twin at birth, which she accidentally discovered when she found the birth and death certificates at age 10. I also have serious doubts about Margaret’s competence as a writer, mainly because of her persistent habit of using prepositions to end sentences with: “Contemporary literature is a world I knew little of” (p. 29). One of the first major mysteries that the book presents is why the famous author Vida Winter would hire the unknown (and grammatically challenged) bookstore clerk Margaret Lea to write her autobiography. It is revealed at the end of the book that Winter had read Lea’s little known biography of the Landier brothers, and figured that she had insider knowledge about siblings. That seems to be an awfully flimsy pretext that we are given to resolve one of the book’s Burning Questions.
The book actually acknowledges its own silliness when Dr. Clifton prescribes Margaret a dose of Sherlock Holmes as a cure for her ailments wrought from romanticism. This Sherlock Holmes reference also serves as the turning point for the book’s resolution, in which Margaret puts her analytical skills to work and resolves Vida Winter’s mystery. And, just to ties things neatly together, we are informed in the final chapter, that Dr. Clifton has romantic intentions toward Margaret. His attraction to her would have to be the great Unresolved Mystery. Frankly Margaret has more in common with the reclusive Aurelius who has spent his life pining for his unknown family, as Margaret has been pining for her long-dead twin sister, whose ghost appears to her in the book’s postscriptum to say goodbye, and to wrap up the story.
Along the way, Margaret, an avid reader, makes an observation about the process of reading a book and being aware of how many pages remain in which the author will present her dénouement. All I can say is, I’m glad it is finished.
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