Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

The famous writer Vida Winter is renowned for the outlandish histories she makes up for interviews. Each one has been a lie. Now an old woman, dying of cancer, she wants to lay certain ghosts to rest before she joins them.

As far as Winter is concerned, biographer Margaret Lea is a blank slate: unfamiliar with her works, untouched by preconceptions. But while Margaret listens to the old novelist's confession, she finds that not all of the ghosts are silent--and that some are calling her own name.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
I'm not confident about that 4-star rating up there.

Carolyn, one of my dear readers and the source of a hefty stack of books I have yet to properly review, has suggested that I do a post about the method I use to assign a rating to a book. Here's the very short version: 1) did it use its words well, and 2) did it make me feel anything.

That said, there's a lot of wiggle room between those criteria where a rating could rise or fall. Gone Girl was masterfully written, and I sure felt something from reading it, but that feeling was "cheated." Tigana forced me to endure a protagonist who made me feel physically ill, and read like an explosion in an adverb factory, but  it achieved one subplot and two characters that almost made the whole thing worthwhile. The prose in Shards of Honor was nothing special, but the characterization had me wheezing and shouting updates across the apartment to my roommate. And so on and so forth.

The book in question, The Thirteenth Tale, is gorgeously composed, and its tight-knit web of characters are engaging. So why am I getting so grumpy about that fourth star?

The novel is very much a love letter to classic Gothic literature, especially as written by the various Brontë sisters (referenced by name, multiple times, throughout the text.) As a musty old English major, I'm impressed by the skill of the author, Diane Setterfield. She deftly recreates the mood of earlier classics, along with the language, the character archetypes, and a certain style of plot twist--all the while retaining freshness and originality. If The Thirteenth Tale had been presented to me as having been written by a contemporary of Austen, I would have believed it. I have no complaints in this regard.

The setting is a little loose at the beginning, forcing me to guess at the time period for the first several chapters until confirmation occurred. (This also may have been because it opened with the feel of a Margaret Atwood novel, leaving me uncertain that this book was set upon Earth as we know it. I knew nothing of the story before reading it, so I remained open to the possibility that it would wriggle out of historical fiction and into fantasy, or, at least, magic realism.) But that isn't my grump.

Neither is it an entirely fatal flaw for the book to have two first-person narrators--whose voices are indistinguishable--or to fail at signalling a narrative shift at two or three points.

I read it at a gallop. I cheered for (and worried over) the characters, both the young biographer Margaret Lea in the "frame" of the tale and Vida Winter in her own memories. Surely that's worth four stars. (I apparently rooted for the wrong theoretical romance, and was caught off guard when a certain person announced their marriage to a certain other in the final pages. Wait, what? Since when?)

Here is my hesitation: As good as Setterfield is at capturing the heart of a Gothic novel, there comes a point when the reader must close the book and re-engage their own mind, until now content to be swept along by the narrative.

At that moment, the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

The instant that I stopped and thought about the pivotal secret of the book, the kernel of Vida Winter's mystery, I lost my heart for the book. It's a stupid twist. The longer I think about it, the more disappointed I am. It's true Gothic in its style, but absolutely implausible in its execution. Even Rochester had a caretaker for his mad wife in the attic. When the book is closed, I can't imagine how Vida Winter's secret could possibly have taken place.

And yet--should I weigh the book by the experience of reading it, or by my response after it had finished? I can't justify taking away a star, or even half a star, from The Thirteenth Tale when it was so well written.

That doesn't mean I can't be grumpy.

I'll leave you, dear readers, with this very fitting excerpt from Margaret Lea's narrative:

Dr. Clifton came. He listened to my heart and asked me lots of questions. "Insomnia? Irregular sleep? Nightmares?" I nodded three times. "I thought so."

He took a thermometer and instructed me to place it under my tongue, then rose and strode to the window. With his back to me, he asked, "And what do you read?"

With the thermometer in my mouth I could not reply.

Wuthering Heights--you've read that?"


"And Jane Eyre?"


"Sense and Sensibility?"


He turned and looked gravely at me. "And I suppose you've read these books more than once?" I nodded and he frowned. "Read and reread? Many times?" Once more I nodded, and his frown deepened. "Since childhood?"

I was baffled by his questions, but compelled by the gravity of his gaze, nodded once again. Beneath his dark brow his eyes narrowed to slits.

[...]He removed the thermometer from my mouth, folded his arms and delivered his diagnosis. "You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits. While on one level the crisis can be ascribed to wandering about in freezing rain without the benefit of adequate waterproofing, the deeper cause is more likely to be found  emotional trauma. However, unlike the heroines of your favorite novels, your constitution has not been weakened by the privations of life in earlier, harsher centuries. No tuberculosis, no childhood polio, no unhygienic living conditions. You'll survive."

[...] I reached for the prescription. In a vigorous scrawl, he had inked:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course.

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