The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield, Atria Books, 2006, 406 pp
I have been longing for a book like this. A fascinating tale with unique characters that kept me always wanting to keep reading, that engaged my heart and mind. It involves books, literature, writing, twins, tragedy, mystery, love and loss.
The story takes place in England. Margaret Lea is a young woman who lost her twin soon after birth, whose mother never recovered emotionally or physically, and whose father, an antiquarian book dealer, raised and educated her in his shop.
Margaret works in the shop and terms herself an amateur biographer. She is engaged by Vida Winter, the bestselling fiction author in England, to write the author's biography. Vida Winter has never revealed the truth about her life but is now dying and gradually tells all to Margaret. Ms Winter is also a twin. Margaret is a compulsive reader but only reads 19th century fiction, because she wants a story properly told with a beginning, a middle and a satisfactory ending. Ms Winter narrates her life story in this fashion, almost.
An old country house with mostly crazy people, another house deep in the moors, fog and rain and chilly weather, secrets and servants who try to take care of their masters: it is all so Gothic. Over and over are references to Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Wuthering Heights and Charles Dickens novels. So the secrets and strange developments of this writer's life unfurl at a perfect pace. Just as I would think I had figured out what was going on, there would be more surprises, with the final bit being the most bizarre of all. Setterfield keeps pulling you on, dying to know how it all came about, until you care about these tortured women as much as anyone you know.
Best of all, she ties up all loose ends while leaving hints of a happier future. Setterfield was an "academic" who specialized in 20th century French literature and is a formidable writer herself. Just great!