Senior Book Discussion: The Thirteenth Tale
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Setterfield, a former professor of 20th-century French literature, is a deft stylist and talented technician. Both her love for literature and the depth of her learning enliven her debut novel.
- Margaux Wexberg Sanchez - The Washington Post
Margaret Lea, a bookish loner, is summoned to the home of Vida Winter, England's most popular novelist, and commanded to write her biography. Miss Winter has been falsifying her life story and her identity for more than 60 years. Facing imminent death and feeling an unexplainable connection to Margaret, Miss Winter begins to spin a haunting, suspenseful tale of an old English estate, a devastating fire, twin girls, a governess, and a ghost. As Margaret carefully records Vida's tale, she ponders her own family secrets. Her research takes her to the English moors to view a mansion's ruins and discover an unexpected ending to Vida's story. Readers will be mesmerized by this -story-within-a-story tinged with the eeriness of Rebecca and the willfulness of Jane Eyre. The author skillfully keeps the plot moving by unfurling a new twist in each chapter and leaves no strand untucked at the surprising and satisfying conclusion. A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics. Lovers of books about book lovers will be enthralled. - Booklist
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The Thirteenth Tale
About the Author
• Birth—August 22, 1964
• Where—Berkshire, England, UK
• Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of Bristol
• Currently—lives in Yorkshire, England
Diane Setterfield is in her early forties. Having spent time in France, she now lives in Harrogate. Her background is an academic one. Her previous publications have been in the field of 19th and 20th century French literature, especially the works of André Gide.
Diane Setterfield is one of the most talked-about authors in the world as this British academic's haunting gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale, was the subject of a high-stakes bidding war on both sides of the pond. After she was discovered by novelist Jim Crace at a writing course on how to get published, Setterfield's book caught the attention of multiple publishers. As the oft-told story goes, the ten-day bidding war the book inspired resulted in it being sold for a staggering 800,000 pounds in the U.K. and $1 million in the U.S. (to Simon & Schuster). Eight translation deals have also been signed, and the book is also expected to be a hot target for filmmakers.
All of this has been quite a kick for Setterfield, who had been a teacher of French literature and the French language and had only previously published articles on literary theory. "If you ask anybody who has ever thought of writing a book how they feel about getting their work published, they will tell you that nothing could be more thrilling," Setterfield told the Yorkshire Post. "Any serious writer would view it as an enormous privilege to be able to devote the best of their time to what they love, and that's what I'll now be able to do."
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1. Much of the novel takes place in two grand estates—Angelfield and then Miss Winter's. How are the houses reflections of their inhabitants?
2. As the story unfolds, we learn that Margaret and Miss Winter are both twins. What else do they have in common?
3. Margaret and her mother are bound by a singular loss—the death of Margaret's twin sister. How has each woman dealt with this loss, and how has it affected her life? If her parents had told her the truth about her twin, would Margaret still be haunted?
4. Books play a major role in this novel. Margaret, for example, sells books for a living. Miss Winter writes them. Most of the important action of the story takes place in libraries. There are stories within stories, all inextricably intertwined. Discuss the various roles of books, stories, and writing in this novel.
5. Miss Winter asks Margaret if she'd like to hear a ghost story—in fact, there seem to be several ghost stories weaving their way through. In what ways is The Thirteenth Tale a classic, gothic novel?
6. Miss Winter frequently changes points of view from third to first person, from "they" to "we" to "I," in telling Margaret her story. The first time she uses "I" is in the recounting of Isabelle's death and Charlie's disappearance. What did you make of this shifting when Margaret points it out on page 204?
7. Compare and contrast Margaret, Miss Winter, and Aurelius—the three "ghosts" of the novel who are also each haunted by their pasts.
8. It is a classic writer's axiom that a symbol must appear at least three times in a story so that the reader knows that you meant it as a symbol. In The Thirteenth Tale, the novel Jane Eyre appears several times. Discuss the appearances and allusions to Jane Eyre and how this novel echoes that one.
9. The story shifts significantly after the death of Mrs. Dunne and John Digence. Adeline steps forward as intelligent, well-spoken, and confident—the "girl in the mists" emerges. Did you believe this miraculous transformation? If not, what did you suspect was really going on?
10. Dr. Clifton tells Margaret that she is "suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination" when he learns that she is an avid reader of novels such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Sense and Sensibility. What do you think he means by drawing such a parallel? What other parallels exist between The Thirteenth Tale and classic nineteenth-century literature?
11. When did you first suspect Miss Winter's true identity? Whether you knew or not, looking back, what clues did she give to Margaret (and what clues did the author give to you)?
12. Margaret tells Aurelius that her mother preferred telling "weightless" stories in place of heavy ones, and that sometimes it's better "not to know." Do you agree or disagree?
13. The title of this novel is taken from the title of Miss Winter's first book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, a collection of twelve stories with a mysterious thirteenth left out at the last minute before publication. How is this symbolic of the novel? What is the thirteenth tale?
14. When do you think The Thirteenth Tale takes place? The narrator gives some hints, but never tells the exact date. Which aspects of the book gave you a sense of time, and which seemed timeless? Did the question of time affect your experience with the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)