The Thirteenth Tale

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This book is another one that has been sitting on my shelf for so long that I forgot what it was about. Upon rereading the summary I was re-intrigued. It mentions ghost stories, mysterious authors, references to Jane Eyre, and old mansions. I also remembered that The Thirteenth Tale got some acclaim when it came out, and there’s a BBC movie of the book. All good stuff.

The Thirteenth Tale is mainly told from aspiring biographer, Margaret Lea’s, perspective. Margaret has been summoned by the legendary author Vida Winter to write the aging author’s true life story. Throughout her rise to fame, Vida Winter has told her story to many biographers and journalists, but she has always made it all up. Now Vida is deathly ill and wishes to finally tell the truth, but Margaret cannot figure out why Vida would want a nobody like her to write her final biography. Margaret soon finds that she and Vida have a few things in common from their pasts, and their futures will be forever intertwined.

As mentioned, a lot of the book is from Margaret’s perspective, but the sections where Vida tells about her past are from Vida’s perspective. It is clear that Margaret has some secrets about her own past, but the driving force of the novel is figuring out Vida’s secrets. In fact, I found myself bored with Margaret’s sections unless she was finding out something about Vida. Margaret feels oddly secondary next to Vida, despite us following Margaret for most of the novel. I wish Margaret was more of her own character, but she feels more like a vehicle created to further Vida’s tale. Vida is an extremely interesting character, and I greatly enjoyed unraveling her secrets. Most of the other characters did not make an impression on me, but a few secondary characters (the Missus, John-the-dig, and Aurelius) got some time to shine.

The plot slowly reveals itself, but I felt like the answers to the many questions about Vida’s life came at a good pace. The atmosphere in the novel is great. Vida’s childhood home is sufficiently creepy and mysterious, Vida’s current home is dark and foreboding, and Margaret’s journeys elsewhere are explained clearly and beautifully. The only thing lackluster about the plot was the ending. Without saying too much, part of the ending felt a bit cheap. Throughout the novel you expect one thing, but the end reveals that that “thing” is not what it appeared to be. It did not go completely “dues ex machina,” but the explanation for one of the big secrets felt unsatisfying to me.

I would still give The Thirteenth Tale a high recommendation. It is a slow, quiet novel that puts forth a good mystery. To me, it felt like a mix between the movie Big Fish, Jane Eyre, and those creepy girls in The Shining, and in my opinion, that sounds pretty interesting.

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