Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Completed: The Thirteenth Tale

Dear Jenny,

Ugh. This was almost a success story -- I started this post just a few days after finishing this novel! But then... I abandoned it a couple of paragraphs in and I am just now getting back to it. Sigh. (Finished in August... it is now October.)

Here is what I wrote in August (after the above congratulatory paragraph which I have since modified):

With all of the "catch up" posts this year, I have missed our little "preview" posts (you know -- where we talk about the book before we read it...) If I had written one for this book, it would have said something like, "I have no idea where I got this book, but I wish I knew, because I would love to thank that person for giving/recommending it to me." Now that I have written that, I am thinking... it was either my mom or my MIL. Had to be, because I don't recall picking this book up on my very own, out of the blue. I'll have to ask them both now... and whoever didn't give/recommend this book to me, I will pass it on to them!

All this to say, I loved this book.

Aaand... that's it. Today, almost halfway through October, I can't remember what I was going to say next! Perhaps I have left myself some notes in the text. Let's see...

Okay. There are a few notes up front, and then I remember just burning through the story. It was a good read. For one, it's an open love letter to books and readers -- the main character, Margaret, is a true book lover -- she grew up working in her father's rare book shop, loves to read, her world revolves around books, she grows up to be a writer, etc. -- so that's pretty great. Here's an awesome passage about reading that occurs early on:
Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.) [4]
And a few pages later...
How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. [8] 
I know that you know that "taken prisoner" experience -- when you have to stay up all night to finish a book? In a lovely way, this book ended up having that thrall over me. How meta!

As for the story itself, I guess it's technically a mystery -- Margaret is called to the house of a famous (and mysterious) writer, Vida Winter, at the end of Vida's life to write her biography. But it's not that straightforward, and you are taken along on the journey as our protagonist unravels the story for herself, thread by thread. She's also kind of racing the clock, as Vida is dying, so if Margaret doesn't figure it out now, she never will.

The title of the book refers to one of Vida's books called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation which only had 12 tales and was immediately re-published with the word "Thirteen" removed. But enough people followed her to wonder, "What was the 13th tale?" (A question frequently asked of our intrepid protagonist throughout the book.) As you read this book, you realize, of course, that you are holding the "Thirteenth Tale" in your very hands. Again... so meta! (It sounds pretty cheesy as I write it here, but it was really well done.)

The characters are nicely drawn and the story-within-a-story-within-*another*-story really works as Vida recounts her life while Margaret goes sniffing around on her own. Throughout the book, we are sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the present but either recalling, or purely speculating upon, the past. It all comes together in a pretty satisfying conclusion -- I don't know if I can really say more without giving away the end (which I know we don't care about too much, but... it's a mystery! Perhaps just this one time, I won't spoiler the hell out of this thing.)

I'll leave you with one more bookish quote:
Whether by luck or accident, I cannot say, but I found my way to the library a full twenty minutes earlier than I had been commanded to attend. It was not a problem. What better place to kill time than a library? [41]
All in all, this is a book I can see lending or recommending to other readers and feeling confident that they will enjoy it. It's not an epic life-changer, but it's a great yarn. (Any interest in reading it yourself? I can send it along!)



  1. This sounds *great* and I might borrow it! I love the combination of book-loving and mysteries, which sounds perfect for me. Sometimes a quick, plot-driven read that just sweeps you along is SO SATISFYING!

    Of course, now I'm kicking myself for not reading this a few days ago...you could have brought it with you when you came this weekend. Oh well, there's always December!

    I am also happy to hear that the "story in a story" device works. I feel like that's just a tricky thing to pull off. Right now, my students are reading American Born Chinese, which is a graphic novel with nested stories. It's so hard for some of the kids to manage all the different plots. I think it's a good challenge, and well worth while, but it's nice to see it done gracefully.

    I'd definitely love to read this one!

  2. Duh. I actually meant to bring it to you! I got distracted with remembering to bring the Birthday Hat and keeping the secret visit a secret! :) I will definitely give it to you in December.