Book Review and Giveaway: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Ok, booklovers. Step away from your computers. Walk - do not run - to your nearest bookstore. Purchase The Thirteenth Tale. Read immediately. No, really. If you haven't read this, you're missing out. If you haven't heard of it, you are missing out and you really don't even know what you're missing.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, is one of those books that has lingered on the edge of my reading mind for what feels like forever; when a good friend (and brilliant music reviewer) sent me a copy for Christmas, I moved it to the top of my reading pile.

Man, am I glad I did. Author Diane Setterfield is a master storyteller; her talents are mirrored in that of her main character, bestselling author Vida Winter. And this is a novel of stories and storytelling:
My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.
So it goes. Despite having given dozens of interviews, Vida Winter is on her deathbed before she decides to tell the world her story - her true story. She contracts expert antiquarian bookseller amateur biographer Margaret Lea for the job. The story quickly becomes two stories - that of the telling, and the story told - which move in parallel, but always from beginning to end. There is no jumping about in Vida Winter's world:
"'Beginnings, middles and endings, all in the correct order. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions.'"
Setterfield's - or Winter's, or perhaps Lea's - story is fascinating, amounting to a series of mysteries and confusions that read like a detective novel, in which reader must parse together one clue after the next to determine the truth of events. And, also like a masterful detective novel, the final revelation of facts left me desperately wanting to start over and re-read the entire 400+ page novel under the new light cast upon events.

The Thirteenth Tale
dregs up the long-buried story of a woman, an author, a sister, a friend. Vida Winter's story and Margaret Lea's account of her acquisition of it touch on raw human emotions that many authors might shy away from. But like the facts that Vida Winter recounts, these are fleeting glimpses into the impact of these emotions:
"'Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.'" (p. 58)

"There are times when the human face and body can express the yearning of the heart so accurately that you can, as they say, read them like a book. I read Aurelius. Do not abandon me." (p. 228)
Even more than intriguing plot and excellent writing - and storytelling - The Thirteenth Tale, (much like Shadow of the Wind) is as much love letter to the world of books as it is a part of that world itself. Books factor heavily in nearly every aspect of the novel, nearly every character's lives. Margaret Lea is a bookseller who seeks comfort in the world of books, particularly 19th-century fiction with carefully wrapped-up storylines. Vida Winter finds solace in the pages of that beloved classic, Jane Eyre. Aurelius Love recalls the memories and love of his mother through the cookbook she left behind. And Setterfield herself is constantly calling to mind the role that books play in our everyday lives:
"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath... Yet for some reason there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead... that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic." (p. 17)
The Thirteenth Tale is no exception to this rule. While Diane Setterfield may not be dead (and readers like myself are itching for another dose of her writing), the miracle of her ink on paper is itself a kind of magic, at once a story that sucks you in and a delicate piece of writing that rests on you like a finely spun spider's web whose bits and pieces refuse to fall away completely. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Margaret Lea says it herself when she asks her readers,
"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 fiber of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you." (p.289-90)
Bottom line: The Thirteenth Tale is a novel like that. It is a novel that at once follows all of its own rules - a novel of stories; a novel with beginnings, middles and endings; a novel that keeps its subjects alive by the miracle of ink on paper - while simultaneously exalting its own presence on your shelves. I repeat: if you haven't already read this one, make it a point to do so. Soon. I predict that you will appreciate the sticky bits of well-written web that linger in the corner of your mind as you approach the next title on your list.


If you can't make it to a bookstore soon, I'll make a deal with you: I wound up with two copies of the book, so I'll be giving one away. I'm keeping the inscribed copy, so the hardcover from the bargain bin is up for grabs. Simply leave a comment to enter. +1 for followers (RSS, Google Friend Connect, Facebook or Twitter). Contest closes next Wednesday, Jan 19th. Open to US and Canada only (sorry to all the international readers out there, but this bookworm's broke).


Note: All page references above refer to the paperback edition.


  1. Yes! This book had me at the cover - and oh what a joy it was to read. I'm so glad you loved it too.

    I love the quote from pg 289 . . . so true.

  2. This book is why I never mind judging a book by its cover. I bought it on impulse because of the books on the cover...but it is one of my favorite books of all time. I've read and re-read it multiple times. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. I felt exactly the same way you did. So much so I gave my copy to my sister, who read it and raved and gave it to my mom, who read it and raved and gave it to my other sister...I did go out and get another copy for myself, and I've sold it a few times here at the store. It's a great booklover book!

    Also, excellent review!

  4. This is the third time I've seen this title produce such fervor in the last week. I am not convinced that I must get it. I have been longing for a thrilling story that really engages me and refuses to let me put it down. This review is perfect! I'm really glad I found your blog--the setup alone is so pleasant. Thanks!

  5. I've been eyeing this one for awhile but your review makes me want it even more. Thanks for the giveaway. I'm a twitter follower @readingangel002.
    dukesangel002 AT yahoo DOT com

  6. I have been meaning to read this for what feels like forever, and for some reason never have. I'd love to win a copy, but now I think I'm going to have to go out and finally buy it if I don't.

    I'm a GFC follower of your blog (Jessica M.) and on Twitter too (@crazylilcuban). Thanks for the giveaway.

  7. Oh oops, I meant to leave my email address too:

    jmartinez0415 [at] gmail [dot] com

  8. I've heard of this one before and have went back and forth between wanting to read it and thinking I should pass. Then I heard it compared to The Shadow of the Wind. Have you read that? If so do you agree with the comparison?

  9. Your review puts it on my "must read soon!" list. Would love to be in the running for the extra copy.

  10. I read this book for a book club and loved it, but I want to read it again because I think I would love it even more after a second read.

  11. If its anything like Shadow of the Wind, I definitely want to read it!! And I love to read free copies... :)

  12. Trish - Glad you enjoyed it, too. Isn't that quote great?

    Brent - I'm so happy to hear it stands up to the test of re-reads. I'm already itching to re-read this now that I know all the facts. Or think I do, anyway.

    Steph - Thanks! It IS the kind of book you want to force into the hands of other readers, no?

    Beth - Yes, you must! Maybe you'll win a copy ;-)

    Reading Angel & Jessica - Thanks for entering.

    Brenna - I wouldn't compare them directly, as they are very different stories, but The Thirteenth Tale did set my mind to wandering back to Shadow of the Wind. They are both odes to books and the power they hold over us, and both combine the perfect amount of fast-paced mystery with beautiful insight into the world around us and the mind of the reader. Ok, now I'm just gushing again.

    Denise - Definitely a must read soon!

    Kritter - I agree, I think a second read is a must for this. And I don't often re-read books (too easily distracted into other things I haven't read yet)

    Anna - See my comment above to Brenna. It's not the same, but the two seem to go together in my mind.

  13. This is my obligatory comment to win the book. It will be added to the large pile of books I need to read that has been growing taller by the year.

  14. I'm not commenting to win since I just bought a copy of this today.

    However, I did want to let you know that I gave you an award over at my blog.

    Here is the link:

  15. Jurg - Thanks for the obligatory comment.

    Laura - Thanks for the award!! Hope you enjoy The Thirteenth Tale, too.

  16. I would love to win the free copy, Thanks!

  17. I am glad I stumbled across your blog. I just lvoe reading and this looks like a great read. I would love to win a copy.

  18. Tribute Books Mama & Melanie - Consider yourselves entered!

  19. Wow, what a review! You totally sold me on this book.


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