Thursday, August 20, 2009

Riveting Reads: The 13th Tale


I came upon Diane Setterfield’s novel by accident. A happy accident. The book stood on a shelf with a dozen others like it, upright, tall, and looking important in its regal book jacket. As I turned it over in my hands, the front cover photo sparked my intrigue. There was picture of a stack of very old books, and centered was the title in a kind of enchanting gothic font: The Thirteenth Tale.
Thirteen tales? I thought. Why thirteen? Why not twelve or fourteen? Was it the superstition behind the number thirteen that Setterfield meant to harness? Captured by curiosity, I flipped to the prologue and read, “All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.” Of course, I immediately thought of my own birth-story. (I almost popped out early on route to a hospital in rural Missouri). Then, I immediately wondered what the devil that tells about me. I’m overly punctual? Hardly. In any case, I was hooked. I had to know what the deal was with the thirteen tales.
Meet Vida Winter. One of the world’s greatest living writers. As her career builds, so does her status, and public interest piques. But to interviewers Winter holds out, telling lies when truth is requested. She mythologizes her own story again and again. Why? To divert reporters from the truth, something decidedly more chilling than any of her tales. When Winter finally chooses to tell all, she picks Margaret Lea as her scribe.
Lea is a quiet biographer with a simple life and few regrets. When she receives the entreating letter from Winter, Lea goes to the elusive novelist and begins piecing together the tale of the century.
Winter’s story begins with Charlie and Isabelle Angelfield and their twin girls; the mercilessly violent and hot-tempered Adeline and the submissive, flaccid Emmeline. Living in their own world with their own language and lack of rules, the twins terrorize their governess, the gardener, their House of Usher-type manor, and much of the town. Aside from dealing with their feral twins, the Angelfields must also juggle a ghost, mental insanity, and a devastating house fire.
A skeptic by habit, Lea wonders at the validity of Winter’s story and her bizarre connection with the Angelfield family, for some parts seem too gothic, too supernatural for truth. Truth or not, Winter’s final version of her beginnings—with its unnerving twists and turns—trumps all of the other bestselling ones.
Reader to reader, Setterfield ranks brilliant in my eyes. Not only are her characters as tangible as my next-door neighbors, but her constant, wide-ranged references to other novels are unprecedented. If the classics were a religion, Setterfield would be its Pope. If you like mystery, unexpected endings, and/or classic literature, then you’ll love The Thirteenth Tale.

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