Diane Setterfield: The Thirteenth Tale

24 Festive Tasks: Door 18 – Winter Solstice / Yuletide, Book

Somewhat too self-involved for my taste, though in a first novel dealing with identity and the autobiographies we create for ourselves that probably shouldn’t have come as a total surprise … and I’ll grant Setterfield that it doesn’t exactly have “first novel” written right across its forehead.  The story’s central underpinning is one of my absolute no-go tropes, however (a secret baby) — and I’m sorry, but the days when I would have found the two (!) generations of Angelfield / March children’s upbringing and childhood, or the household as such for that matter, anything even approaching romantic, wild or desirable are long gone.

Far and away the best scene is the one summed up in isanythingopen‘s 70% mark status update — a doctor’s prescription of Sherlock Holmes as a cure for a cold and for getting overly romantically caught up in an identification with 19th century women’s literature:

(Writer, heed thy own words, I’m bound to add.)

3 1/2 stars because I’m feeling generous and the writing actually is quite atmospheric whenever it isn’t trying too hard.

The framework narrative mostly takes place in December, so I’m counting this book towards the Winter Solstice / Yuletide square of 24 Festive Tasks.


Original post:



On the original version of this post, I had the following exchange with my friend Murder by Death (who also has a WordPress blog) — SPOILER  ALERT: We did discuss the final plot twists and resolution –:


Murder by Death
I had to look back at my review to refresh my memory, but my original rating was 3.5 start too, though I bumped it up to 4 because I loved the Vida Winters character – she kept me reading when I’d have long before DNFd the book based on the MC.

Were those family dynamics supposed to be romantic, wild or desirable? If so, I’m with you – I just found them profoundly twisted and f*cked up (pardon the language).


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
I think they were — we’re supposed to like Annabelle and the twins / the girls, if no one else, since it’s clear that Vida Winter must be one of them … and we’re also supposed to like her. I kind of did, and I also “got” how the fictitious public bios operated as her veil of privacy — still, I think in RL I’d have written her out of my life pretty quickly. For however much she may have grown up with the need to deceive built into her life from early on and thus having become a habit, I wouldn’t want that level of dishonesty in my life as a permanent companion (if only in the form of never really knowing whether and to what extent she happens to be telling the truth at any given time). She only comes clean vis-à-vis Margaret at the very end of her life, as a last resort. That may have been good enough for Margaret, who met her at that particular moment. But the mere *hope* that she’ll one day be truthful would not be enough for me … not to mention, look at how many other people suffered as a result of her family’s secrets and the things they did to hide them. There’s *nothing* glorious about those secrets and that family’s behaviour, and yet the book damn well nearly glorifies it all. My initial rating was in the range of 2 1/2 or 3 stars; I’m still not sure whether I shouldn’t bump it back down to that level after all.


Murder by Death
Ah, I see where you’re coming from. I took the story at face value; as in, I didn’t extrapolate out beyond the scope of the story on the pages. Based on what is on the pages, I liked Vida – I’d never have tolerated her myself for the same reasons you cite, but I was able to enjoy her on the page as an eccentric woman with a gift for words. Her family though, was profoundly messed up and I didn’t get the vibe that she herself thought any differently. I’d argue (and here I am extrapolating) that amongst all the reasons she felt she had to lie, embarrassment would be amongst the them (not to mention more than her fair share of personal dysfunction as a result of her childhood).

The hidden baby trope, which is one I normally can’t tolerate either, didn’t bother me here simply because it wasn’t even on my radar until it was revealed and by that time the story was pretty much at an end. I think I also didn’t mind it because the baby being hidden wasn’t as much of the point as the consequences were.

But Margaret was what almost killed the story for me – I just wanted to smack her and tell her to get over it. Well, I started out wishing she’d get some therapy; it was only by the end that I wanted to smack her. That part of the story just completely failed for me.


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
Yes, that part came across as way too artificial and trying too hard — especially since the “twin” experience that was apparently supposed to create a special bond between Margaret and Vida was so totally diifferent it would hardly have created any bond at all; when it comes down to it, the “twin” thing was nothing more than a huge coincidence … and a Macguffin. Not to mention that I actually found it hard to believe one half of a couple of Siamese twins should have literally taken *years* to find out about the whole thing — the traces the operation left on / in her own body, if nothing else, should have told her otherwise from early on. (Also, just by the by, that whole ethereal “twins’ special bond” thing is nonsense anyway — my grandma was a twin, and though there are a few of those cliché twin photos from their childhood, with identical clothes etc., neither she nor her sister had any particular “sixth sense” when it came to the respective other twin. They lived hundreds of kilometers apart and had to rely on the same means of communication as everybody else to hear about each other — and were each other’s fiercest critics, when all was said and done, even if by and large they got along.)

The final “hidden baby” revelation wasn’t actually the first thing that annoyed me about it (it was more like an “oh God, and now this, too” / “everything but the kitchen sink” moment) — but there was a secrecy surrounding the twins from the start that put me off right away and made me suspect there was more to come, all the more in light of the heavy-handed handling of the whole “twin” motif in general.

As for Vida, I generally can accept (and enjoy) fictional characters for who they are in the context of a story, too — but dishonesty, whichever way it is explained and whatever may have caused it, is something I dislike in fictional characters as much as in real life — perhaps even more so if, like Vida, they’re supposed to be a book’s (positive) hero(-ine). Embarrassment about one’s family history may be a cause for withdrawal from the public eye, but there are ways of dealing with that sort of family history without hiding it below several layers of wild fabrications. And for all the “withdrawal” part, Vida also enjoyed being front and center, and telling outrageously sensationalist stories about one’s own past and one’s family is very much in line with that — not with a need for privacy. (Besides, Vida obviously had a great time concocting and telling those stories — and she never spent a moment thinking about what she might be doing to others connected with her family; not least Aurelius and the family *he* had been kept away from for most of his life.)


Murder by Death
You bring up two interesting points in the last paragraph. I’m with you on the idea of honesty above all things (some who know me in RL sort of wish I had less of it; they should just stop asking me questions they might not like the answers to! lol) But … what did Vida owe her public as a celebrity? How obligated is she to bare her entire life to her reading public, given that she didn’t commit any crimes (legal ones, moral ones are a different matter)? I’m reticent by nature and dislike anyone acting too interested in ‘knowing me’ – there’s a point at which it becomes invasive. In the case of a celebrity, does she have a responsibility to her reading public to bare the skeletons in her closet just because she’s a celebrity? And in her case, she never tried to be consistent; her celebrity myth, if you will, incorporated the wild stories about her past that everybody seemed to have recognised as just that – stories. It became part of her ‘celebrity character’, if you know what I mean? If she was not a public figure of fame, I’d abhor the dishonesties, but given that I’ve never understood a fan’s need to know intimate details in a celeb’s life, I sort of condone the stories they might make up to protect themselves, or keep their lives from being picked apart.

SPOILER ALERT AFTER THIS!!!!!!!!! On the other hand, the second point is – Aurelius. There’s a responsibility there too, and I’m not at all sure she made the right decision there. Yes, in terms of keeping him from the woman who may or may not have been his mother (since if she wasn’t, she was the one that tried to kill him several times and may try to again), but no, in that I feel she had a responsibility to tell *him* the entire truth so that he wasn’t forever wondering about his past and why he was abandoned. Her decision in this area was not entirely the correct one – she could have done better by him. But, if she had, there’d be less of a story, I suppose.

At any rate, this has suddenly become a more interesting book, just because of our conversation here. So kudos to the book – and to you – for that, and thanks! 🙂


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
Hahaha, you’re welcome, and thank you in turn! 🙂

I think the story could still have worked if Aurelius had known but not told anyone, because Vida had made him promise to keep it secret.

As for Vida herself, I don’t think she owed her public *access* to her life — God knows I’m the first person to be all for celebrities’ right to privacy; I think papparazzi and celebrity-hunting tabloids are one of the world’s greatest scourges, and if every celebrity decided to hide behind 15-feet thick and 50-feet high walls, they’d be totally within their rights (not that they should have to do this in the first place, obviously). But *access* isn’t the same thing as *honesty and truthfulness*, and (1) I do think people who are “in the public eye” are role models, and fabricating outrageous stories about oneself is just not something I’d want to see emulated or advocated by *anybody*; and (2) by the same token, it’s precisely because Vida deliberately chose to make this element part of her public persona that I have little time for her. If the stories were ludicrous enough I just might be amused by them, but if it were something on the level of what we’re told here (illegitimate baby raised in an orphanage), I’d probably just dismiss it as attention-grabbing once it had been revealed to have been a fabrication. Either way, I wouldn’t want her in my life, for however scintillating she might come across and for however much those gloriously fake bits of autobiography might be built into her public persona.

I guess ultimately it all comes down to reliability to me. A deliberately dishonest person just isn’t somebody I can rely on — and reliability is the core value I look at in any- and everybody; in RL (both work and private) as well as in fiction. Oddly, that doesn’t mean I dislike “unreliable narrator” stories as such — but it depends on just what causes a narrator to be unreliable. E.g., since “when it comes to the past we all write fiction,” as Stephen King put it, even the best-intentioned narrative involving memories must be necessarily flawed (and this is actually part of why I like Kazuo Ishiguro’s books — the unreliability of memory is core to all of them, and I love how he handles this). Similarly, I think few people are unfailingly apt judges of themselves and their own actions / position in the world, however well-intentioned and self-critical they are; so if this is a factor in why a given narrator is unreliable, I’ll probably both empathize with them and wish someone would smack them over the head or screw their eyes open (unless there is a deliberate element of self-deception, in which case, however, I just might glory in seeing them cut down to size). But that’s not the type of unreliable narrator we have here — here, we’re dealing with someone who has a very firm grip of who she is and where she came from and who is just lying to others about it. *That* kind of thing I simply don’t need in my life (any more than those who deliberately deceive themselves). — Side note: There’s obviously a fine line to be walked at times when honesty collides with tact. That’s not my issue here, though.


Murder by Death
But didn’t Margaret say at the beginning that all of Vida’s stories were widely regarded as just that? Wildly eccentric stories that changed with each journalist? I’d have to look back at my book to be sure, (and at the moment I have an Easter cat on my chest and a ‘lito cat on my feet), but I have a strong memory (for what THAT’S worth) that this is the case, and therefore they were just ludicrous and eccentric. But without book in hand, I’d not want to advocate that too strongly.

I doubt this will make sense, because the connection is tenuous and a huge stretch, but for some reason, from Margaret’s first description of Vida, she reminded me of the character of Ms. Dinsmoor in the ’98 movie adaptation of Great Expectations, minus the crazy break with reality. Once that impression was made, it was who Vida resembled in my head. This was, I think, the reason why I didn’t have any problem with her role in this book.

There was also an element of fear, and need to protect, in those stories, since right up to the end, Vida never knew which sister she was caring for: the one she loved or the one she loathed, though I cared less about that motivation than I was probably supposed to.


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
It’s not about whether or not the lies are obvious ones (which is only how Setterfield establishes Vida as an unreliable narrator anyway) — it’s that she’s telling them at all. And, again, you can protect your and your family’s privacy without resorting to untruths.

I can totally see the connection with Ms. Dinsmoor / Havisham, btw … and guess what, Estella and the way she was raised / the way she was encouraged to treat Pip / Finn by Ms. Dinsmoor / Havisham is a key reason why “Great Expectations” is far from my favorite Dickens novel in turn. 🙂 Same goes for the 1998 movie adaptation (though De Niro was great as Arthur Lustig) …


Murder by Death
I wholly admit I only watched that adaptation because it was filmed in Sarasota (Dinsmoor’s decrepit house is the Ringling Mansion – which is in perfect repair btw) and the bay where De Niro jumps Pip is the bay I grew up on.


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
NOW she tells me. I mean, I knew it was filmed in Florida, but it’s not like the state — or its coastline — would fit into a shoebox, after all!


Murder by Death
So true… it’s why the bootleggers, gun runners and drug smugglers love our state so much. 😛


Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
… and elsewhere the Cornish coast …

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