Friday, June 08, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Take was this years "Shadow of the Wind" for me as a reader. I was fortunate enough to run across the book while shopping at my sons Scholastic book fair at Lake Wilderness Elementary School, and I have to say I was shocked at how small the adult reading section was this year. Last year I had my choice of several interesting books, both paperback and hardback, and this year there was just a couple of stacks of adult books pushed into a far and shadowy corner where you had to stumble across them to even see them. The Thirteenth Tale caught my eye because its cover is a handsome painting of a stack of old leather bound books with ribbon bookmarks hanging from the middle of the book. Though I'd never heard of the author, once I got to the counter to purchase the book, the volunteer clerk said "Oh, I've heard this one's really good."
Turns out she was right, it was a good book, though with lingering traces of bitterness and vitriol that seems to be inherent in British literature.
The story is about a young woman who runs a rare and antique bookstore with her father in a sleepy part of England. She tends to read, research and write about authors long dead, and she has a fixation on twins because she was born a twin, but her sister died at birth, after they were separated. Her parents never told her about this, (it seems to have driven her mother mad), though she discovers it on her own. She receives a letter one day from a famous best selling author of popular fiction, asking her to write the authors real biography. This particular author has been lying to reporters and fans for years about her background, because she's certain that people do not really savor the truth, and would rather have a tidy and happy fiction provided for their entertainment.
Our heroine agrees to write the biography, though she's never given a clear answer as to why she was chosen to write the book, and she moves into the authors mansion. It is then that we are treated to an old fashioned classic tale of eccentric and horrific people who become parents, yet who do not parent their children, thus ensuring that their offspring become bizarre and eccentric people who make bad decisions, like themselves. The prose in this book reads like a cross between Austin and Dickens with a bit of Thackery thrown in for good measure. The reader isn't spared any of the horror or the madness of the authors background, and we begin to see early on why the author hasn't shared this tale with anyone before; it's almost too strange, frightening and awful to be believed. The bookworm finds herself falling into the story and asking questions about her own past through the impetus of all the secrets that are revealed by the author, and she even manages to find the identity of a foundling and introduce him to his family with her sharp and deductive reasoning abilities. I found myself wanting more romance in the book, more happiness and less despair and degradation, but I am one of those people who find happy endings more entertaining than tragic ones. Still, despite the hard truths and death that attends this novel, it is well worth the time it takes to make the journey through the Thirteen Tale with Ms Setterfield. I highly recommend it, but only for those who love classic storytelling with a bite of bitterness.
Currently I'm reading a book sent to me by Penguin imprint Hudson Street Press called "Twinkie, Deconstructed" which looks to be similar to another non fiction favorite of mine, "Glass, Paper, Beans" by Leah Hager Cohen. Both are works about finding out what goes into the making of everyday objects or food. In the case of Cohen's book, its a behind the scenes look at what goes into making newsprint paper, a glass cup and the coffee that resides inside the cup. Twinkie is about what those indeciperable ingredients like Polysorbate 60 really are, and where they come from to make the delicious sponge cake known as a Twinkie. It should prove to be a fascinating read. I will review it here when I am done. I hope to get to some other summer reads in the meantime.

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