Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Big Secret Done Right: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield

I've been burned by misleading book reviews, so when a book is as hyped as Setterfield's Thirteenth Tale, I am more than a bit skeptical. I've read many reviews raving about the novel's unexpected secrets and unforeseen twists and turns. We'll see, thought I.

The novel begins as Margaret spends her time among the books in her father's bookstore. She has not much time for people, and she likes it that way. Her endless span of days spent reading and cataloguing is interrupted by a letter from the legendary Vida Winter, the nation's most beloved -- not to mention secretive -- writer.

Vida is old and ill and understandably desperate to tell the world the true story of her life, which she has successfully kept hidden for decades. The crux of Vida's story involves a lost twin, a situation Margaret understands. As Vida's complex past unravels, it soon becomes clear that her story is quickly rushing headlong toward the unveiling of a Really Big Secret. In fact, it seems that adding a Really Big Secret to your under-appreciated novel will guarantee it all sorts of attention and acclaim (c.f. The Keep by Jennifer Egan for a good example of a bad novel getting excellent press due to a "surprise." Brilliant use of the technique, really.)

In fact, these two novels have a lot in common. Besides their mysteriousness, both novels feature Gothic elements, ghost-like characters, a writer seeking to uncover the truth, and, of course, a Really Big Secret. The main difference, however, is that Egan's secret is like a fart in an elevator: all up in your face and impossible to conceal. In a nice contrast, Setterfield's secret is deftly obscured until the very end; while I kept trying to guess it, I never once came close.

In a nutshell: Pretty good for a hyped bestseller. Thankfully the first chapter is the only one in which she begins every other sentence with the word "for." For I could never forgive an entire novel of such overwrought, melodramatic rubbish.

Bibliolatry Scale: 4 out of 6 stars

2 comments:

Kristin Dodge said...

Number, please. I started reading it and became irritated. I'm wondering if I should try again.

Word verification says: notnks

Bibliolatrist said...

Whoops! Forgot the rating...although it's been pointed out (and I'm starting to agree) that my numbers don't mean too much. I rated The Keep at a 3.5, and I think it should be downgraded to a 2. So obviously my numbers aren't worth too much.