Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

I considered this book on my last big trip to Books-A-Million and almost bought it. Later a friend recommended it to me. (That's you, Linda!) Then I was introduced to (Thank you, Lydia!) Now here I am.

When I first started reading I kept thinking the author was Geraldine Brooks. This is partly because March arrived just after I had started reading this one, and I couldn't help but read the first few pages of it; but also because the main character of this book is written as a bibliophile with the same reverence for and love of books as Hanna from People of the Book.

One thing I loved about this book was the insightfulness of its writing. Take, for example, this quote about death, immortality and books:
"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic."
Or this brief mention, also on books: "For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down."

And who among us readers has not known the following feeling?
"All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes--characters even--caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you."
Thoughts like these, that seem at once profound and an expression of my own ideas, were interwoven with a very intriguing and mysterious story. These are ingredients that go a long way towards making a great book.

Of course, the book wasn't perfect. As I read, I was afraid the actual thirteenth tale that everyone was so curious about would not be revealed any more than what was in Marcellus Wallace's case. I also considered the possibility that the thirteenth tale was merely the history Miss Winter was relating to Margaret, which really would not have fit in the original book, either in style or in length. Of course, the thirteenth tale did turn out to be Miss Winter's story, though it was stylized and shortened. It would have fit perfectly in the original book, though I can see why it was left out.

I didn't like the chapter where Margaret met Aurelius. It seemed somehow vague and unrealistic, and the man himself didn't seem to fit in the story. But as I read on, it became clear that Aurelius belonged right where he was. It was a relief to find that the chapter in question was not as purposeless as it seemed at first. Similarly, I had trouble believing Adeline could have changed so much. How could such a wild, wicked, and soulless child, obviously not right in the head, suddenly become a level-headed and intelligent young woman? It made me feel much better when I found out she hadn't, as that revelation closed up what I had perceived to be an annoying plot hole.

I have debated with myself over whether to label this book as a "must read," as it doesn't quite measure up to The Amnesiac or The Time Traveler's Wife in my mind, but it is still excellent and I can't imagine any avid reader not enjoying it. I am also having trouble deciding whether to re-post it on paperbackswap. My usual criteria is whether I would want to read the book again someday, and I probably would want to, except that right now I have so many other books I want to read that I feel like I just don't have time to re-read one. On the other hand, this is a nice hardcover copy . . . I think I'll hang onto it.


Elle said...

Okay - you've made my decision for me - I'm reading this!

Kathy said...

I will warn you that I loaned this book to a friend and she thought it started slooooowly. (Then she loaned it to her mom, and her mom thought the same thing). I didn't agree, but if you find it's slow to start, just keep at it! My friend and her mom both enjoyed it as much as I did, once they got past the beginning.

Amanda said...

Another great choice, thank you!
I do agree that it starts a little slow, but once Ms. Winter is introduced it gets quite intriguing! This is another one that I had to pace myself, it was very hard to put down.

And the end, (*spoiler*) which sister do you think she saved??

My only qualm would be with Margaret's mother. I thought it was a bit extreme behavior. I have two friend's that had twins and lost one. Both are extremely thrilled to have one healthy child and would not ever make said child feel unwanted or unloved.
Oh, and one other small thing, the end where the doctor hints he likes her, that wasn't necessary, I didn't need a neat bow, I knew Margaret was going to be okay. Besides he seemed to annoy her through the book, she had a better connection with Aureluis.

Kathy said...

Ack, it's been so long since I read this that I can't even answer your spoiler question!! TOTAL SPOILERS AHEAD SO QUIT READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK: From what I wrote in my post, I'm sure it wasn't Adeline that was saved. Didn't the saved sister pretend to be Adeline, though? Here's how vague my memory is: Weren't there twins AND another girl? In my incomplete memory I'm thinking both twins died, and the other girl was saved and pretended to be Adeline. Oh, I have no idea. Guess it's a good thing I kept the book--I'll have to re-read it to find out!

Amanda said...

The pretend Adeline lived. She saved one of the twin sisters. She loved one and meant to save her, but she thought she might have saved the other. The saved twin went mad anyway so it really didn't matter which, I was just curious if you thought one or the other.

Kathy said...

I bet I did have an opinion on which twin was saved at some point . . . definitely going to have to re-read to remember, though!

Kathy said...

AND, btw, happy birthday!!