The Weight of Tales Untold

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Release Date: January 2006
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Atria
Pages: 406 pages
Source & Format: Gifted; Paperback
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Summary (from Goodreads)
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels. 

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.

Brief Thoughts on The Thirteenth Tale
Several years ago, I put The Thirteenth Tale on my Christmas wish list. I received it, and then I promptly put it on my bookcase. I'm not sure what happened, but somehow in the time between asking for it and owning it I just totally forgot why the book interested me in the first place. If you'd asked me what the book was about before I finally picked it up recently, I'm not sure I wouldn't have gotten any of the details correct.

I knew that The Thirteenth Tale was a Gothic mystery, and I think that's what initially attracted me to the book. Add in some rave reviews from friends and great rating on Goodreads, and I was intrigued. What finally convinced me to read it, however, was the reaction when the book was mentioned during the #IShall Twitter chat. I felt like I was so out of the loop!

I think my favorite thing about this book is the writing. Setterfield has a way with words, and she's written something that will certainly strike a chord with book lovers. I liked the Gothic elements of the story. There's something about a mystery with hints of the supernatural to keep you hooked! The writing communicates that dark, foreboding tone. I liked, too, that it feels as though you're being told a story. I could imagine this aging novelist retelling her life story!

But as much as I loved the writing, I found the story dragged at times. I wanted it to get to the point already! The story veered into melodrama, and I found Margaret to be quite annoying (as was her obsession with the person she lost - I won't say more for fear of spoilers). I think my biggest frustration, however, was the ending. It just seemed anticlimactic to me! While I enjoyed it overall, I never quite compared to how I felt about books like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. It's similar, but never totally delivered for me.

However, I'm glad I finally took this one off my shelf and spent some time with this tale! I absolutely think it's worth reading, and I can see why it's a favorite for so many. This was certainly a memorable read - though it was nothing like what I'd expected. I'm glad the hype led me to finally read it, even if it perhaps made my expectations a bit too high. But if you love Gothic reads, you've got to check this one out!

So Quotable
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”


  1. That is such a beautiful quote you chose to highlight here! It definitely does sound as though Setterfield has a way with words.
    I bought this one quite a few months ago myself but haven't managed to read it yet. I am intrigued though because, as you said, this book seems to have had a positive effect on so many people. Glad you still managed to enjoy this one, even if you didn't love as much as you'd hoped.

  2. I love this book so much! I agree it moves slowly at times, but it's so haunting, and that's why I love it. I read it years ago (it's time for a rereading), but it's stuck with me forever.

  3. The biggest thing about this book, for me, is that it was the first gothic fiction that I ever read - so it effectively opened my eyes to amazing authors like Kate Morton, Lucinda Riley, Katherine Webb, Kimberley Freeman, etc, etc. It will always hold a special place in my heart because of that! (Especially for introducing me to Kate... <3)

    It was years ago that I read it, but I also remember it moving a bit slower at times. I think it worked for me because it became something that I could fall into for hours at a time over the course of weeks (I wasn't blogging then so felt no reader pressure, haha!). Last sort of fun thing to note, I've had Bellman & Black (her most recent book) on my shelf for over a year and I am terrified to read it. The Thirteenth Tale is up so high on this pedestal for me and what if Bellman & Black ruins that??

    Love that you ended up enjoying it, Hannah!

  4. I'm glad you liked it! I don't remember it well enough to remember any faults but I loved this book when I read it! The reveal, so to speak, has stuck with me for years. I still think about it sometimes. The writing is definitely beautiful but can be slow.

  5. I agree! I read this book years ago and while it wasn't a perfect read for me, I really enjoyed it.

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed this, even if it wasn't perfect. My senior thesis in undergrad was on this book (focusing on identity in Gothic literature, since there are so many things you can write about with this!), and this book also inspired my graduate thesis on neo-Gothic and YA Gothic literature. <3 I will warn you, though, that her other book, Bellman & Black, has that slow pacing and Gothic feel, but it's not quite like this. More murder mystery, less atmospheric mystery. Not sure if that'll sway you one way or another to read it.

  7. It's been years since I read The Thirteenth Tale, and I'm ashamed to admit I don't remember much about it! I do remember that I thought it was not the type I would say was a favorite for life, but also not one that I thought wasn't worth the time I spent on it. I'm not much for Gothic literature, honestly, but as someone who likes to read and write, I thought this was pretty good back when I had just read it. Glad you finally got to read it and that you liked it well enough!


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