Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Book of the Month Club: The Thirteenth Tale February 1, 2013

Filed under: Book Club — Stephanie Rische @ 8:20 am
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13th tale

Thanks to everyone who participated in our virtual book club (which I introduced here). January’s selection was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.


Here’s how it works: I’m going to throw out some discussion topics, and you can feel free to post your comments—about these topics or other things you want to talk about.


Discussion #1: Story vs. Truth

The initial letter Vida Winter sends to Margaret includes an interesting commentary about the power of story compared to the power of truth:


My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?…When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie. (p. 5)


Meanwhile, Margaret agrees to be Vida Winter’s biographer only on the condition that Vida Winter tells her the truth. She even manages to squeeze a few verifiable facts out of the writer before she begins.


Over the course of the book, do you think Vida Winter’s stance on truth and story changes? Clearly, at the end of her life, the “plump comforts of a story” aren’t enough to soothe her. And Margaret seems to so lose herself in Vida Winter’s story that she no longer seems quite so consumed with the facts.


Which do you prefer: a story or the truth?


Discussion #2: Twins

One of the central themes of the book is twins. Vida Winter is haunted by twins who kept her outside their circle; Margaret is haunted by her twin who died as an infant—the sister whose absence still gapes. Do you think there’s a special twin connection?


Discussion #3: Margaret

What do you think of Margaret as a character? Is her story compelling, or is she just a vehicle for Vida Winter to tell her story?


I enjoyed having two stories—the parallels between Margaret’s and Vida’s lives add depth and mystery to the book. But I wished I could have gotten more about Margaret’s story. When Margaret protests that she doesn’t have a story, Vida Winter tells her, “Of course you have. Everybody has a story.” But while we get glimmers of Margaret’s story, it feels flat in the shadow of Vida’s narrative.


In an interview shortly after the book’s release, Diane Setterfield shared this comment about the early process of writing The Thirteenth Tale: “The biographer, Margaret, was very quiet and reserved and she was very difficult and withdrawn, I could tell she was hiding something from me, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I got very annoyed with the book and the characters, and didn’t do anything for a year. After that I took a deep breath and sat down with it again. I couldn’t leave it alone—I just felt these characters deserved to have their stories told.”




What do you think? Did she do justice to Margaret’s character?


Discussion #4: One Lingering Mystery

In a book full of twists and turns, we uncover yet another surprise when Emmeline’s identity is called into question near the end of the book. Vida Winter recounts the scene after she saved Emmeline from the fire:


I look at her face and cannot find my beloved in it.
“Emmeline?” I whisper. “Emmeline?”

She does not reply.

I feel my heart die. What have I done? Have I…? Is it possible that…?

I cannot bear to know.

I cannot bear not to know. (p. 379)


And so Vida Winter cares for her half-sister for the rest of her life, not knowing if it’s her beloved Emmeline or the deranged Adeline. What do you think? Was it Emmeline or Adeline? And what would it say about Vida Winter if it was the latter?



For more about the author, you can visit this page. I was astonished to find that this was Diane Setterfield’s first novel—her previous publications were all academic works about nineteenth and twentieth century French literature. Not bad for her first try.


I’d give The Thirteenth Tale 4.5 stars (out of 5).

4.5 stars


What rating would you give this book?


{Reminder: I will give away a free book to one randomly selected commenter!}


18 Responses to “Book of the Month Club: The Thirteenth Tale”

  1. 1. I would argue that every “truth” is a story when told by a human being. After all, we can only see the “truth” through the lens of our experiences…so “truth” will always be colored.
    2. Good question. Definitely more of a connection with identical twins. Not sure about fraternal. Does sharing a womb give you more of a connection than regular siblings? Not sure about that. Catherine could answer better!
    3. I, too, loved the parallel stories of Margaret and Vida. I felt we got enough of Margaret to make it interesting but not so much as to steal the limelight from Vida. I was OK with that.
    4. That whole twist at the end totally confused me and threw me. I felt like I needed to read the book again in light of this new information and see if there were clues that I had missed. Whether the injured twin was Emmeline or Adeline kind of freaked me out. Wouldn’t there be a birthmark or some other identifying physical trait to figure that sort of thing out? Dental records? Or couldn’t we just ask her and have her nod once for yes and twice for no?!

    Overall, I loved the book and highly recommend it. I give it a 5 out of 5. Thought it was beautifully written. Every sentence delighted me.

    Thanks for hosting this book club, Stephanie. Great questions…looking forward to others’ responses!

    • Stephanie Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lu! I especially liked your idea that truth is always a story out of our mouths. And I agree…Diane really has a way with words.

  2. Diane Davis Johnson Says:

    Truth or Story… I can’t choose. I need and want both…I would totally agree with Luann Doman’s comment to #1. I often find myself understanding the truth of other people, situations, etc better when I know their back stories.

    Although I am not a twin, there are several sets of twins in my family. I had identical twin Uncles who DEFINITELY had a special connection almost like a sixth sense. My mom, their sister, said they had a special language as children much like Adeline and Emmeline. My cousins that are twins also have a special connections. Since connections and relationships are developed in shared experiences, twins have by far the most opportunity to have the most shared experiences which is likely to develop special connections.

    I loved Margaret and her character development. I felt like Margaret had to go through the difficult experience of writing Vida’s story to become the rich full person she was by the end of the story. It was easy for me to identify and walk through the story with Margaret, because so many of the difficult situations in life are what makes grow in depth and become interesting as people.

    While so many characteristics of Vida on the surface were self centered and rather nasty, from about the middle of the book on I kept thinking there is something more to her that made her nasty (great writing by Setterfield) Then I was totally confused at the death of the gardener because by then I was rooting for her, Vida,to be good. So no matter which twin she took care of Vida was good in the end…

    Thanks for suggesting a great read Stephanie. I’m at a 4.5 out of 5 too. I’m looking forward to the February book. Have you posted it yet?

  3. Stephanie Says:

    Great thoughts, Diane! I loved hearing about your uncles who had a twin language! I agree…I loved the way the author gave us just enough clues about Vida’s character to keep her believable but still likable in the end. I’ll be posting the selection for February on Tuesday, but I’ll give you a sneak preview: The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller.

  4. nate Says:

    Overall, I enjoyed the book. My rating wouldn’t be quite as high as yours, probably only a 3, maybe a 3.5 (I’m also a notoriously low-scoring critic of anything). I felt like the beginning was beginning was slow, the middle was excellent, but the ending was unsatisfying and rushed. I couldn’t decide whether the “main mystery” of the book was Vida Winter’s story or the identity of the Thirteenth Tale. Certainly the main focus of the novel was Vida Winter’s story, but the title, the beginning section, and all of the supplemental characters are only interested in the Thirteenth Tale. In fact, by the time Vida Winter’s mystery had been answered, I’d completely forgotten about the Thirteenth Tale and would have completed the book without even wondering about it had it not been shoehorned into the resolution chapters.
    All that being said, I thought the middle section of the book was excellent. When Vida’s story started spiraling to a head, I was definitely hooked.
    As to your discussion questions…
    1. It’s fascinating to assume that truth and story are incompatible. Vida Winter’s even shows us that they can be bedfellows, albeit strange. If she was solely interested in the truth without story, she would have disclosed her true identity as soon as she would have appeared. But she was interested in telling the story, and so she left out parts so that the whole story could be composed as such. What she tells Margaret is the truth, but it is formatted as a story. Entire scenes and characters are left out, inferred until the end with the intent of building mystery and drama about the story. It reminds me a bit of David Egger’s groundbreaking book “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” or Richard Power’s autobiographical novel “Galatea 2.2.” Both use true events in a fictional context to tell a story.
    2. It seemed to me that the twin theme was based on an exaggerated and fairy tale version of twins. Do some of these traits occur? I’m sure, but the twins that I’ve known (including an ex and my current roommate and close friend) don’t seem to share any of these traits. In fact, the opposite; the twins I’ve known well share mannerisms, attitudes, and the base nature of their personalities unlike Adeline & Emmeline. On the other end, of course, it is a fantastical novel and exaggerated and fairy tale versions are completely acceptable.
    3. I felt Maraget was too aloof and withdrawn to really connect with. The only times I found I cared much for her was when she was with Aurelius and stopped acting like herself. As a reader, she seemed more interested in definitive and dull books, or with words in book form, than actual stories. Her attraction to facts and more dull reading seemed to conflict with her escapist reading fantasies.
    4. I knew from the moment that they first introduced the twins to John & the Missus that a case of mistaken identity would play into the story (What was one of the first things they ask? “’Which one is which?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know.’” Pg 76). The funniest part? I didn’t even catch that part when I read through it (I read the scene of the fire late late one night right before bed and was nearly asleep). I only noticed it later when Margaret refused to identify either one of the bodies. I thought Margaret believed in the end that Adeline survived, but Vida chose to believe that Emmeline had survived. The real question: does it matter? The main theme of twins was that they were incomplete without each other (both sets, Emmeline & Adeline as well as Margaret and her sister). The twins are presented as two sides of the same coin, two parts of one whole. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and when one of the parts is missing the other is greatly diminished. Raymond Chandler, famous mystery writer in the 20s, 30s, and 40s once said, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” The end is missing to that part of the story, and quite frankly I’m okay with that.

    One of the things I found unnecessary was the need to wrap up all of Margaret’s subplots in neat and happy bows. The arrival of her sister’s ghost felt out of place, too obvious for a story whose ghosts had only been hinted at and seen from the corner of your eyes. Ghosts who were never really ghosts in the end. I would’ve liked a little bit more tension rather than her happily ever after with the cat and the doctor in the countryside.

    • Wow, awesome thoughts, Nate! I loved your perspective as someone who is something of an expert on mysteries. And you had a great perspective about how it didn’t matter which twin it was since they’re presented as two sides of the same coin. I agree with you about the neat resolution, but Vida kind of warned us about that with all her talk of beginnings, middles, and ends. 🙂

  5. Erin Says:

    I really enjoyed the book, thanks for the suggestion. I enjoyed the twist of the third child…didn’t see it coming.
    #1. Truth or story? As someone who works with dementia patients, knowing their story allows me to get to know them. Often, they’re no longer able to piece together their lives, as it fades away with their declining memory. Hearing stories from families about their past helps me to create a new “story” for them as they often can’t accept the truth–they have dementia and will never be able to return “home,” wherever that may be.
    #2. I definitely think there’s a special connection amongst twins. Having known nothing differently since conception, there has to be a special bond there. Again, working with the elderly population, I have met residents who once had a twin. Given the generation they grew up in, their twins often passed away due to childhood illness, and they’ve talked about a piece of them missing ever since.
    #3. I felt the author told as much of Margaret’s story as she did Vida’s. It was sad to think of her broken relationship with her mother.
    #4. I’m not sure if it was Emmeline or Adeline after the fire…another mystery left for us to ponder. Given that Adeline shut down during the separation experiment, perhaps Adeline did survive, only to live out her life completely shut out of reality.

    Again, great read for what can be a slow month.

    • Thanks so much for joining us, Erin! I loved your perspective about how we need a story to create our reality…I’d never thought about that in terms of dementia patients, but it makes a lot of sense. I really liked your thought about how Adeline may have survived only to be shut out of reality too.

  6. Nancy Rische Says:

    Great comments. The story definitely held me. I too saw the mistaken identity possibility. The “ghost” child was a total surprise. I did remember at some point that Margaret noticed that Vida began to say I instead of Adeline in the story.

    I think there is a time for the truth and a time for a story and Vida had a time for each one.
    I believe that often times twins have a deeper connection then siblings. Maybe it is the fact that they have to share so many things – even the womb.
    I liked the way Margaret’s character grew over the book. The only thing I didn’t like was the twin coming to her at the end. I don’t think it was needed or added anything to the story.
    In my mind there is no doubt that it was Adeline that survived the fire especially because of the “breakdown” she had when Aurelius came to meet her with Margaret. And Margaret thought so too because she give the ashes from the bones to Aurelius and they buried her on top of the grave marked Emmeline.
    I would give it 4 stars. I enjoyed reading it but it wouldn’t be listed in my top – five star books.
    Great choice Stephanie. Great comments all!

    • nate Says:

      I agree with you about Margaret’s twin’s ghost’s visit. (i’m so excited that I worked four consecutive possessive words into that sentence)

    • I agree with you about the ghost twin part at the end. This book already had enough drama and tension going for it, we didn’t need that on top of everything else. Great point about the point of view switch too, when Vida starting using “I” in the story. It would be interesting to go back and read it again and see how many other clues I missed!

  7. Jolyn Says:

    First of all, I was late to the game – not sure how I missed the idea of the “book club” until this past week, but I picked up “The Thirteenth Tale from the library on Thursday – and finished it tonight. I found myself pulled into the story – and was surprised by that, since it’s different from the Christian fiction I normally read to relax!

    1. Story or the truth? I’ve come to appreciate both. And I don’t find them to be incompatible. After all, the Bible is full of interesting stories, all entirely true. But I can understand her point. I often try to lose myself in a good, fictional story to escape.

    2. I think some twins have a special connection – and it usually seems more pronounced in identical twins. My husband’s younger brother and sister are twins and besides being siblings, sometimes I wonder if they have any connection at all. His younger brother (twin) now has fraternal twin boys of his own – and they seem almost as opposite from one another (and although they have the same lack of formal bedtimes and mealtimes, are not anywhere as wicked as Adeline and Emmeline!).

    3. I think Margaret was meant to fade into the background a bit. She became as captivated by piecing together the story as I was, and I forgot about her family back home as well. She seemed changed by hearing Vida’s story and being a part of her last days, yet I was surprised that she didn’t take an opportunity to reconcile with her mother at some point. Avoiding her mother as she did seemed to hurt her father most of all and the ending seemed to move her farther from her parents instead.

    4. Throughout the story, I kept wondering what must have matured and shaped Adeline to become Vida Winter, an accomplished author as an adult. How could she have shed the anger, the almost pure evil that ran through her? I was relieved when the story twisted and revealed the third girl. It still seemed to me that the surviving twin was Emmeline, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much. The survivor was such a shell of her former self and Vida’s continued care was admirable regardless.

    I would give the book at least 4 out of 5 stars. It was so intricately written, the story so tangled, I could have never dreamed up something that detailed. I may be the only one, but I was disappointed after all that work, the biography was left unpublished. A story like that left behind? After all those hours and dedication?

    I could have done without all the ghost talk. Vida’s story made more sense once the third girl was introduced, but I would delete those last pages when Margaret’s ghost twin comes for a visit.

    Overall, a story well-told. And one I wouldn’t have picked up without your suggestion, Stephanie! Thank you!

    • Nancy Rische Says:

      I agree with everyone about Margaret reconciling with her mother. It was left undone.

    • Oh my, I can’t believe how quickly you finished this book! I agree with you about the unresolved relationship with her mom. It felt jarring that everything else resolved so neatly, but we didn’t have much idea where or if that would go anywhere. For that matter, I was struck by how many dysfunctional mothers there were in the story. Hmm… I agree with you about the ghost talk too. The parts that had explanations later made sense, but that last scene felt contrived. So glad you were able to join us!

  8. […] First of all, congratulations to Diane for winning the free book for January’s book discussion! (You can check out our lively conversation about twins and ghosts and mistaken identities here.} […]

  9. alice Teisan Says:

    Wow Big S, you certainly are on to something with the monthly virtual book club. I can’t say I joined in on this last book.

  10. […] Stephanie Rische’s Book of the Month Club […]

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