The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Setterfield, Diane. The Thirteenth Tale.  Atria, 2006.  $26.00, 406 pages.

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Reader’s Annotation:

A writer with a mysterious past, an amateur biographer with a love of books, the missing story that brings them together and reveals all the dark secrets.


When Margaret Lea gets the summons from novelist Vida Winters to write her biography, she is hesitant to accept.  Winters’ past has always been shrouded in mystery, as she has either evaded questions from the press or made up wild stories that are later proven to be untrue.  After reading a rare copy of Vida’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, and realizing that there are only 12 tales, Margaret decides to meet with Vida.  Vida intrigues Margaret to write her biography with the promise of the missing thirteenth tale.  What starts out as a story of two twins becomes a tale of the dysfunctional Angelfield family and their secrets that ultimately destroy the family members and those unfortunate enough to become entwined in their lives.  Along the way, the truth about Vida and the truth about Margaret, herself, comes to light.


Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale has all the elements of a classic Gothic novel with dark, brooding characters; an isolated mansion; a young, naive heroine; and mystery and death.  It is elegantly written with beautiful descriptions and language.  The language itself is accessible, written in contemporary terms.  The characters are complex and many parallels can be drawn between the multiple stories that are told.  The complexity of the story is heightened with the multiple points of views and means of storytelling: Margaret as narrator, Vida as storyteller who has forbidden questions, and even Hester’s diary.  Thematically, the novel is rich with symbolism, foreshadowing, and well-crafted suspense and plotting.  There are references to Jane Eyre, which may help the reader better understand some of the Gothic elements of the story.

Rating Scale:

  • Popularity:1 – Would sit on shelves unread; 2 – May see the light of day as an assigned reading; 3 – Interesting to readers, may need marketing; 4 – Very appealing read, ; 5 – Need multiple copies, because it would always be checked out!
  • Quality: 1 – How was this book ever published?; 2 – Poor literary quality; 3 – Average literary quality, nothing stands out as exceptional; 4 – Overall high quality literary quality, with certain areas of exceptional literary quality; 5 – Well-crafted of the highest literary quality
  • Popularity: 3
  • Quality: 4

Genre and Subgenre:

realistic fiction, mystery, modern Gothic

Appeal Factors:

mystery, family relationships and drama

Readalike Titles or Authors:

  • Darling Jim by Christian Moerk
  • Ghost Writer by John Harwood
  • The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Awards Won and Book Lists:

  • 2007 Alex Award

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Reading Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation and deciding to meet with Vida Winters
  • The characterization of each twin
  • The “ghost child” story

Book Discussion Questions or Ideas:

  • (Spoiler) Which twin survived the fire?
  • How does the Gothic style of this novel add to the overall tone and mood?
  • What clues are given along the way that point out who Vida Winters really is?

Why I Chose This:

The mystery aspect of this novel was what drew me in.  I thought it was very clever to title it The Thirteenth Tale and that the story that was told was actually the thirteenth tale itself.  The mulit-person point of view was also compelling, in that each new character to tell the tale added another element to the mystery and to its solution.