We book lovers have things in common, and Margaret Lea, the heroine of Diane Setterfield's heralded debut novel, is one of us. So besotted is she by books that she makes sure she is sitting down whenever she reads, so as not to fall over and hurt herself while engrossed in a story. Margaret works in her father's bookshop, reading 19th-century novels and writing the occasional biography of obscure literary figures. The most exciting thing in Margaret's life is a family secret she discovered as a child that has branded her like a scar.
Then one day she receives a letter requesting her services as a biographer from Vida Winter, an author of such magnitude that 22 biographers have already attempted (and failed) to write her life story. Vida has told any number of tales about her life, but only now, says Vida, is she prepared to tell the truth. During their collaboration, which takes place mostly in a library of any book lover's dream, they manage to work through both of their stories, alongside a small cast of dutiful servants and one canny feline in the present, and a large cast of twins, ghosts and one wily governess in the past.
Setterfield gives us a fairy tale complete with a giant and abandoned babies, a gothic suspense novel with a creepy family estate and crazy relatives, and a ghost story with disappearing books and a girl in the mist. But more than that, Setterfield has provided a rarity: a beautifully written novel with a swift plot, atmospheric setting and witty dialogue that combine to provide a read that will leave any book lover well satisfied.
Publishing simultaneously in 28 countries, The Thirteenth Tale is going to make Setterfield, a former academic living in England, a very busy woman. Not only is she scheduled for a 14-city tour in the States, she'll need to write her next novel quickly, because there is no doubt that we book lovers will be clamoring for more.
Kristy Kiernan's first novel will be published in 2007 by Berkley. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 July #2
A dying writer bids a young bookshop assistant to write her biography.Margaret Lea grew up in a household of mourning, but she never knew why until the day she opened a box of papers underneath her parent's bed and found the birth and death certificates of a twin sister of whom she never knew. It is the coincidence of twins in the life of Vida Winter, Britain's most famous writer, that convinces Margaret to leave her post at her father's rare-books store and travel to the dying writer's Yorkshire estate. There, she hears a story no one else knows: who Vida Winter really is. For decades, the author has wildly fabricated answers to personal questions in interviews. Now Vida wants to tell the true story. And what a story it is, replete with madness; incest; a pair of twins who speak a private language; a devastating fire; a ghost that opens doors and closes books; a baby abandoned on a doorstep in the rain; a page torn from a turn-of-the-century edition of Jane Eyre; a cake-baking gentle giant; skeletons; topiaries; blind housekeepers; and suicide. As the master storyteller nears death, Margaret has yet to understand why she is the one Vida chose to record her tale. And is it a tall tale? One last great fiction to leave for her reading public? Only Margaret, who begins to catch glimpses of her own dead twin in the eternal gloom of the Winter estate, can sort truth from longing and lies from guilt. Setterfield has crafted an homage to the romantic heroines of du Maurier, Collins and the Brontës. But this is no postmodern revision of the genre. It is a contemporary gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility (Vida's "brother" is the least convincing character) can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling.Setterfield's debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century. Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 May #2
Vida Wagner is about to spill a terrible secret she has been hiding for 60 years. One of those highly touted debuts; with a 14-city tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 August #1
A ruined mansion in the English countryside, secret illegitimate children, a madwoman hidden in the attic, ghostly twin sisters yep, it's a gothic novel, and it doesn't pretend to be anything fancier. But this one grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed. Margaret Lea, an antiquarian bookseller and sometime biographer of obscure writers, receives a letter from Vida Winter, "the world's most famous living author. Vida has always invented pasts for herself in interviews, but now, on her deathbed, she at last has decided to tell the truth and has chosen Margaret to write her story. Now living at Vida's (spooky) country estate, Margaret finds herself spellbound by the tale of Vida's childhood some 70 years earlier...but is it really the truth? And will Vida live to finish the story? Setterfield's first novel is equally suited to a rainy afternoon on the couch or a summer day on the beach. For all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.] Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego Cty. Lib.[Page 73]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Former academic Setterfield pays tribute in her debut to Brontë and du Maurier heroines: a plain girl gets wrapped up in a dark, haunted ruin of a house, which guards family secrets that are not hers and that she must discover at her peril. Margaret Lea, a London bookseller's daughter, has written an obscure biography that suggests deep understanding of siblings. She is contacted by renowned aging author Vida Winter, who finally wishes to tell her own, long-hidden, life story. Margaret travels to Yorkshire, where she interviews the dying writer, walks the remains of her estate at Angelfield and tries to verify the old woman's tale of a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. With the aid of colorful Aurelius Love, Margaret puzzles out generations of Angelfield: destructive Uncle Charlie; his elusive sister, Isabelle; their unhappy parents; Isabelle's twin daughters, Adeline and Emmeline; and the children's caretakers. Contending with ghosts and with a (mostly) scary bunch of living people, Setterfield's sensible heroine is, like Jane Eyre, full of repressed feeling--and is unprepared for both heartache and romance. And like Jane, she's a real reader and makes a terrific narrator. That's where the comparisons end, but Setterfield, who lives in Yorkshire, offers graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures. (Sept.)[Page 27]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.