Gwen & Kate's Library

Two sisters' reviews of Young Adult and Middle Grade books, inspired by their lovely library.

Gwen’s Summer Challenge: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Adult)

The Thirteenth Tale is my new bible. It is the most beautifully written book I have ever read, and the three intertwined stories (if not more) are so complex and astonishing the book left me stunned after finishing, just sitting there staring into space, trying to make sense of what I had just read. This book is definitely a book for book lovers, but I cannot recommend it more for everyone! 


Series: None!

Genres: Adult, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Gothic

Rating: 5+ Stars!!!!


Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still.

Book Review:

The Thirteenth Tale is my new bible. It is the most beautifully written book I have ever read, and the three intertwined stories (if not more) are so complex and astonishing the book left me stunned after finishing, just sitting there staring into space, trying to make sense of what I had just read. This book is definitely a book for book lovers, but I cannot recommend it more for everyone! The entire time I read this book it didn’t leave my side, and my family often heard strange noises (gasps of shock, “hmms” of confusion, etc.) coming from me during dinner, in the car, or anywhere else I could sneak it.

I read this book at the recommendation of my best friend Lydia, and to find a prose piece for the Speech club I participate in at school. This would be a few pages out of a book that I would read in a performance style in front of judges, and this book has many, many perfect selections for that purpose.

As explained in the description, The Thirteenth Tale is the story of Margaret Lea, the daughter of a bookseller and an amateur biographer, and a woman with her own secrets and worries. One day, a letter arrives from the famous contemporary author Vida Winter, requesting her to write her biography. Margaret reads her book Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, but finds only twelve tales contained within, and wonders about the mysterious thirteenth tale. Despite the title of the book and the description, the thirteenth tale is merely a small part of the immensely complex plot.

When Margaret meets with Vida Winter, doubting that any of her story is true, Vida tells the story of two twins, Adeline and Emmeline, living in their family’s run-down estate, Angelfield, with their recluse uncle Charlie, mother Isabel, housekeeper, gardener, and governess. The story that Miss Winter tells takes up most of the focus of the book, but it often switches back to Margaret, hearing the story. Curious to find out if the story is indeed true, Margaret fact-checks, and finds herself exploring the run-down mansion of Angelfield. What she finds there begins an entirely new thread of the tale, and another one to be wrapped up in the confounding ending with the most unexpected plot twist that is impossible to predict and very difficult to believe and come to terms with.

The Thirteenth Tale is one of the few books I’ve read in which I found the plot seemed almost second to the masterful writing and descriptions. The writing style of this book is amazing — all the descriptions are unique and focus on things that we all notice but are never really mentioned in books. To fully explain this, I’d need to quote the entire book, but here are a few that stood out to me, for I have felt the feeling described many times myself.

“Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes–characters even–caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.”

“I irritate myself by putting things down and forgetting when I have left them. And when I pick up my book at night, my bookmark tells me that the previous night I must have turned the pages blindly, for I have no recollection at all of the events on the page or the one before.”

Something else specific that I loved about the writing style, which fits like no other could with the type of tale the book tells, is that each character had their own way of talking, and just by looking at the word choice or grammar or spacings, you could easily guess who was speaking. This really brought the strange, wonderful, and mysterious characters to life.

The Thirteenth Tale deals with themes of twins, death, family, insanity, loss, regret, and much, much more. The many interwoven stories are all of my wildest dreams — dusty old bookstores and libraries, topiary gardens, exploring run-down mansions, off-the-beaten-track isolated little towns, old graveyards and ghosts. It has the feeling of a fantastic fantasy tale while remaining realistic (in the loosest form of the word).

This book is a perfect book club book, mostly because it just needs to be discussed. If anyone has read this book and would like to talk about it with me, please leave a comment. For those who have not read the book, read the comments carefully for it is far to easy to let a spoiler slip that will ruin the entire book.

In my book hangover, I looked up other books similar, and found two promising ones. One, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, was recommended by my 8th grade English teacher, and the other, The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton, looks like a fascinating combination of books and cultural anthropology.

One thing I’d like to say about the ending without giving any of the fantastic plot twist away, is that it is wonderfully wrapped up in a way that pleases the reader (for example telling what happens to the cat, which reminded me quite a bit of Hazel and Gus’s curiosity about the hamster in An Imperial Affliction in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green), while leaving just enough hanging to leave you wondering about the true tale long after finishing the book.

Genre Review: Adult

This book is not in the adult genre because of explicit or violent subject matter, but because of the advanced reading level, the somewhat slow plot without too much action, the confusing and only hinted at details, and the dark and gothic mood. Because of this I highly recommend this book for any young adult reader with a love of reading about books, haunted houses, and deep mysteries, and enough patience to deal with a plot not full of typical YA action, but thoughtful prose instead.

Have you read this book? If so, let’s talk! I’d love to hear what you think!


2 comments on “Gwen’s Summer Challenge: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Adult)

  1. Lea Jurock
    August 30, 2014

    I cannot argue that this book was beautifully written, but I was unable to finish it myself due to some of the subject matter. I may have to try it again sometime, though. I still remember being completely drawn in by the writing.

    • gwenkate
      August 30, 2014

      Yes, the writing is beautiful, but it is also a cause for some people not wanting to finish — because I realize the plot was a little slow at times. I enjoyed it nonetheless! I hope you do try it again someday!

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