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Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Discussion: The Thirteenth Tale

This month my group read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I read this book last year when it first came out and wrote this annotation for one of my displays:

"Vida Winter is England’s most popular and most mysterious author. As she faces her own mortality, Winter is finally willing to divulge her biggest secrets and chooses Margaret Lea, a rare bookseller, to be her biographer. As Winter’s life story is slowly unraveled, Lea gets caught up in the tale of ghosts, lies, and half-truths and is forced to come to terms with some of her own family secrets. The Thirteenth Tale is a modern take on the Gothic ghost stories of yore."

This novel is in the tradition of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca. It has all of the elements of a Gothic tale, including some incredible coincidences, outrageous family situations, and lots and lots of secrets.

Our discussion was lively. In fact, when we finished one of the participants mentioned how we should have taped the conversation as an example of what a great book discussion is.

Despite the shift in genre for us as a group, all but three people really liked the book, and the three hold outs, were mixed. Comments made at the start included a few people noting how "clever" the book was, how much thought went into it, and how "different" it was. One person talked about how she felt that it had the feel of an updated version of an older book. Still another said it almost felt like it was spoofing the Gothic genre. And finally, another person said that it had so many twists and turns, secrets and lies, details and over the top characters, that if it had not been so well done, it could have just as easily been a disaster.

The beautiful writing, especially those passages which talk about reading and storytelling were commented upon. In fact, I think we read from this novel, sharing our favorite lines, more than usual. We talked about the role of books and stories in this novel, the "dangers" of reading, and how all of the houses in this novel reflect their inhabitants.

Everyone loved the book within a book, within a book, storyline. We talked a lot about that category of books and compared this novel to Atonement by Ian McEwan, which this group had read previously. We spent a good deal of time playing around with the idea that there was Vida's story and Margaret's story, and then the overall biography that Margaret ended up producing, but not publishing, which also happened to be the book in our hands now (published), and finally, how all of it is simply a single book written by Setterfield. You can see how this led to much discussion. It was fun though. So fun in fact, that one participant noted how this illustrated how Setterfield told this entire tale in such a playful way. This woman felt that Setterfield was writing more for herself than for her audience and this woman appreciated this as a reader.

The novel also lends itself to a discussion of biography versus storytelling. Margaret insists they are different, Vida claims they are one and the same. We discussed how different and surprisingly similar the two pursuits are, especially as illustrated in this novel. Margaret wants Vida to tell her life story with the beginning at the beginning, the middle in the middle, and the end at the end. However, it cannot be told that way. Our life stories do not begin with our births. Setterfield does a nice job setting up this discussion by having the most important piece of Vida's life story, the fire at Angelfield, which happened when she was a young girl, finally revealed near the end of the book. To further underscore this point, one of my participants pointed out that Margaret then titles one of the last chapters of her biography of Ms. Winter, "Beginnings." This revealed much about Margaret's own transformation throughout the book too.

Another discussion thread I want to point out here has a SPOILER ALERT attached to it so I left it for last. Please skip to the readalikes if you do not want to know about a major plot twist. The fire at Angelfield reveals the truth, that there were three girls, not two, and only two survive the fire. Although Vida tried to save Emmeline and leave Adeline to perish, it is not ever clear which of the two girls actually survived. We had a spirited conversation debating this point and people were able to use the text to back their claims. In the end we were satisfied that Setterfield left enough clues for either answer to be correct and we can think what we want.

Readalikes: There are many suggestions one could make for readers who enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale. People who like the book, within a book, within a book frame can try Atonement (as mentioned above), Snow by Orhan Pamuk and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

Besides the Gothic tales listed at the start of this post, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is also referred to in the text, and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue is a newer book with a Gothic feel involving changelings and children. I have found success passing the latter book on to patrons who enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale

There is also an entire other category of novels that deal with bookstore owners and real life dramas. Two popular and well received works are The Club Dumas, a thriller by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and another popular book discussion title, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

For those readers interested in learning more about the Gothic literary tradition try this link to the book The History of Gothic Fiction. This book and the other titles found on this page will get you started.

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