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I bought this book on a whim from a library used-book sale. It had an intriguing title and description and I seemed to remember a friend mentioning it to me a few months earlier—though I couldn't remember if she’d liked it or not.

If I had to sum up The Thirteenth Tale in a sentence I’d say it was a compelling story badly executed. I love over-the-top Gothic tales that involve completely unbelievable combinations of dramatic elements like people wasting away from grief, insanity, secret love affairs, secret children, murder out of love, people driven mad by love, houses crumbling to pieces around a family deserted by their servants etc. and The Thirteenth Tale had all of it.

The book opens with our main character, Margaret, getting a letter from a famous but mysterious author, Vida Winter, telling her that she wants Margaret to write her one true biography. Throughout her life Vida has told many fanciful but obviously fake versions of her life story, but as she is now ill and dying she’s decided it is time to tell someone the truth. The book flips back and forth between Margaret’s life and her chats with Vida Winter, and Vida’s own story. Vida’s story starts more than 70 years in the past, before her own birth, in a large house called Angelfield. It involves all the above-mentioned Gothic elements and more—governesses, incest, twins, ghosts.

It took me a couple months to finish this book because I kept putting it down in exasperation, or stopping to angrily read bits to my husband because I couldn't believe the level of bad writing. The main issues I had with this novel were twofold: the heavy-handed writing and the at-times completely unbelievable characters.

One expects a certain level of unbelievability in Gothic characters—the nature of the genre lends itself to exaggeration. However, in the, perhaps 1/3 of the book which takes place in the *present* (which I believe is meant to be sometime around the 1950s, though I don’t think it’s ever stated) the characters were very hard to believe or connect with. So many times I couldn't stop saying out loud “nobody would act that way!” For instance when Margaret stumbles across a man hanging out in the ruins of Angelfield, they have a conversation, eat something together, and go on a walk before she bothers to ask him what he was doing there. These sort of things, when they occur many times in a novel, are very distracting to a reader.

I could have dealt with the issue of the characters, but not the heavy-handedness. There were times when one could tell the author was pleased with her own knowledge or turn of phrase and wanted to make sure the reader DIDN’T MISS IT. Certain story elements were so over-stated or repeated so many times it was completely exasperating to try to get through the section of writing. It was as if the author was peering over my shoulder saying, “Did you get it? Did you get it? Do you see what I did there? Wait, let me say it again a little differently. Wasn’t that profound? Don’t worry, I’ll come back to it and say it again in case you missed it.” I wish she had a little more faith that her readers would pick up on things. Certain metaphors or pieces of the prose were beautifully written. And then written again slightly differently. And then again, and again. This author comes off as one of those people who likes to hear themselves talk or who couldn't decide on the best way to say something, so she said it all the ways. Setterfield could have used a better editor to help guide her through slimming down some sections and stating her main points more subtly.

The book does have some things going for it though. Part of the reason I was so upset by the writing was that I found the story compelling and wanted it to be delivered better. At times I found myself reading much later into the night than I had intended. The twist at the end, while not 100% unexpected was still very good. To sum up, I would recommend this book if you’d like to read a good Gothic story and don’t mind trudging through some very silly writing.


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