Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop where her fascination for the biographies of the long-dead has led her to write them herself. She gets a letter from one of the most famous authors of the day, the mysterious Vida Winter, whose popularity as a writer has been in no way diminished by her reclusiveness. Until now, Vida has toyed with journalists who interview her, creating outlandish life histories for herself — all of them invention. Now she is old and ailing, and at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to Margaret is a summons.
Somewhat anxiously, the equally reclusive Margaret travels to Yorkshire to meet her subject. Vida's strange, gothic tale features the Angelfield family; dark-hearted Charlie and his unbrotherly obsession with his sister, the fascinating, devious, and willful Isabelle, and Isabelle's daughters, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret is captivated by the power of Vida's storytelling, but she doesn't entirely trust Vida's account. She goes to check up on the family, visiting their old home and piecing together their story in her own way. What she discovers on her journey to the truth is for Margaret a chilling and transforming experience.
Questions for Discussion
Much of the novel takes place in two grand estates — Angelfield and then Miss Winter's. How are the houses reflections of their inhabitants?
As the story unfolds, we learn that Margaret and Miss Winter are both twins. What else do they have in common?
Margaret and her mother are bound by a singular loss — the death of Margaret's twin sister. How has each woman dealt with this loss, and how has it affected her life? If her parents had told her the truth about her twin, would Margaret still be haunted?
Books play a major role in this novel. Margaret, for example, sells books for a living. Miss Winter writes them. Most of the important action of the story takes place in libraries. There are stories within stories, all inextricably intertwined. Discuss the various roles of books, stories, and writing in this novel.
Miss Winter asks Margaret if she'd like to hear a ghost story — in fact, there seem to be several ghost stories weaving their way through. In what ways is The Thirteenth Tale a classic, gothic novel?
Miss Winter frequently changes points of view from third to first person, from "they" to "we" to "I," in telling Margaret her story. The first time she uses "I" is in the recounting of Isabelle's death and Charlie's disappearance. What did you make of this shifting when Margaret points it out on page 204?
Compare and contrast Margaret, Miss Winter, and Aurelius — the three "ghosts" of the novel who are also each haunted by their pasts.
It is a classic writer's axiom that a symbol must appear at least three times in a story so that the reader knows that you meant it as a symbol. In The Thirteenth Tale, the novel Jane Eyre appears several times. Discuss the appearances and allusions to Jane Eyre and how this novel echoes that one.
The story shifts significantly after the death of Mrs. Dunne and John Digence. Adeline steps forward as intelligent, well-spoken, and confident — the "girl in the mists" emerges. Did you believe this miraculous transformation? If not, what did you suspect was really going on?
Dr. Clifton tells Margaret that she is "suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination" when he learns that she is an avid reader of novels such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Sense and Sensibility. What do you think he means by drawing such a parallel? What other parallels exist between The Thirteenth Tale and classic 19th century literature?
When did you first suspect Miss Winter's true identity? Whether you knew or not, looking back, what clues did she give to Margaret (and what clues did the author give to you)?
Margaret tells Aurelius that her mother preferred telling "weightless" stories in place of heavy ones, and that sometimes it's better "not to know." Do you agree or disagree?
The title of this novel is taken from the title of Miss Winter's first book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, a collection of twelve stories with a mysterious thirteenth left out at the last minute before publication. How is this symbolic of the novel? What is the thirteenth tale?
When do you think The Thirteenth Tale takes place? The narrator gives some hints, but never tells the exact date. Which aspects of the book gave you a sense of time, and which seemed timeless? Did the question of time affect your experience with the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club Experience
Ghost stories abound in The Thirteenth Tale, and in many American towns and cities as well. Take your book group on a haunted house tour. You can find a haunt near you at www.hauntedhouse.com.
If you're the host, give everyone a gift of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (or rent the movie).
Research the Yorkshire Moors and the small market town of Banbury, England, the general region of the fictional Angelfield village and Miss Winter's private estate. You can start with information and photos at www.yorkshirenet.co.uk and www.absoluteastronomy.com/reference/banbury.
Discover hidden treasures by taking a group trip to an antiquarian bookshop like the one Margaret's father owns. You can find one near you by visiting http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Antiquarians.html.
Turn your next meeting into a traditional English tea party. To sample some delicious recipes, visit http://www.joyofbaking.com/EnglishTeaParty.html.
Ambrosia4All, March 11, 2010 (view all comments by Ambrosia4All)
While reading "The Thirteenth Tale" I couldn't wait to turn the page and find out what happened next. This tale of twins, a ghost, a rundown estate, a garden, and a mysterious writer was exactly what I was looking for. The tale centers on Margaret, a young bookshop clerk and amateur biographer, and Vida Winter, a prolific and popular, yet reclusive writer. Ms. Winter invites Margaret to hear her life story so that it will live on.
The fascinating life story holds all the clues that are essential to figuring out the mystery, but it still surprised me in the end. I was so immersed in the story, that I hardly cared, I just wanted it to keep going. Highly recommended!
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (5 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
Cheryl Trine, January 4, 2010 (view all comments by Cheryl Trine)
I love old books, complex stories filled with odd characters, mysteries I can't figure out until the last page, and strong women making meaningful personal journeys. I also like an author who knows how to turn concise words into beautiful images for my heart and mind to savor. Wonderfully, The Thirteenth Tale does not disappoint, capturing me from first to last as I devoured each remarkable page, each enticing plot turn, each narrowing of the path. Vivid but never redundant, The Thirteenth Tale weaves a great story. Perfect for a good snuggle in bed on a lazy Saturday morning.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
muwhobbit, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by muwhobbit)
I picked up this book in an airport to read on a transatlantic flight, and I couldn't put it down! I gave up on any hope of taking a nap and just read it straight through. Setterfield has a beautiful knack for the gothic, and the book is intricately plotted and wonderfully written. I highly recommend it!
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (4 of 6 readers found this comment helpful)
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Library Journal,
"Setterfield's first novel is equally suited to a rainy afternoon on the couch or a summer day on the beach."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[A] contemporary gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility...can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling."
by San Diego Union-Tribune,
"The Thirteenth Tale is a book that you wake in the middle of the night craving to get back to....Like a childhood favorite, it is timeless, charming, pure pleasure to read."
by Boston Globe,
"Setterfield is neither a Bronte nor a DuMaurier, and her adventure creaks at times....But this debut novel gets a lot of that rich bookishness right, heavy on the gothic detail and romantic suspense."
by Philadelphia Inquirer,
"Those who buy and read this complex, compelling and, in the end, deeply moving novel are unlikely to feel they've been shortchanged."
by Los Angeles Times,
"The Thirteenth Tale explicitly sets out to capitalize on our longing for a good old-fashioned read but fails to deliver on precisely that."
by Rocky Mountain News,
"This is a book-lover's novel, with rich characters, fascinating plot twists and plenty of secluded moments infused with the soothing smell of cracking leather and old paper....[A] smart, thoughtful look at truth and deception."
"A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics. Lovers of books about book lovers will be enthralled."
Amateur biographer Margaret Lea receives a letter from reclusive author Vida Winter, summoning her to write Vida's life story. As Margaret pieces together Vida's story on her own, what she discovers is a chilling and transforming experience.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.