In this book, Margaret goes from spending her days working in her father’s antique bookshop and reading stories at night, to taking on the position of writing a biography for the mysterious author Vida Winter. Miss Winter has woven her own story full of family secrets, strange twins, loss, love, and tragedy. Reminiscent of gothic novels like Jane Eyre and The Woman in White, Diane Setterfield’s tale is an atmospheric story full of surprising twists.
This The Thirteenth Tale book discussion guide will travel with your group through the decades of Miss Winter’s extraordinary life. You can use The Thirteenth Tale book club questions to help your conversation delve into the secrets of Miss Winter and Margaret’s lives.
With our guide, you can tackle the book’s themes around identity, truth, and loss. And in the selected reviews, you can find other perspectives of this novel and see what elements worked or didn’t work for other readers.
If you loved the book’s mysteries, dark atmosphere, and intriguing narration, check out the list at the end of this article for three related reads.
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The Thirteenth Tale Synopsis
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Sometimes, when you open the door to the past, what you confront is your destiny.
Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness—featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.
Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.
10 The Thirteenth Tale Book Club Questions
These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.
- Many novels are mentioned throughout the book as both Margret and Vida are avid readers. Had you read any or all of these novels? Did your knowledge of those books allow you to make connections in the story? Alternatively, did you wish you had known more about the novels which were held so dear by the central characters?
- “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 the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. 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.”
What role does truth play in The Thirteenth Tale? We learn early on in the story that Vida Winter is known for telling stories about her life; giving made-up events to everyone who asks. How did this knowledge affect your reading of her story? She promises to provide the truth, but did you believe her?
- The Thirteenth Tale is full of complicated characters, many of whom are unlikeable. Did you like Vida Winter or Margaret at the beginning of the book? Did your feelings towards them change by the end of the book after all the mysteries are revealed?
- Throughout the book, two stories are unfolding; Vida Winter’s tale about her family and Margaret’s story as she tries to uncover the truth of Vida Winter’s tale. What do you think about how they were woven together? Did you enjoy one story over the other?
- “All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.”
Do you have stories you tell about yourself when you were too young to remember the events? Did reading this book make you think at all about the way that you tell your own story? And what fits into fact vs. narrative?
- There are several different sibling relationships throughout the book, many of them unhealthy. In the case of the sets of twins, the relationships almost have a magical quality. What do you think Setterfield was saying through her depiction of siblings?
- This book is full of mysteries and surprises, especially in the tale told by Vida Winter. Were you able to guess any of the big secrets of the novel before they were revealed?
- What did you think of the time setting of this book? When do you think the book is set? Setterfield avoids using dates or technology to pinpoint the time period. Did you feel like this choice meant the book could be happening now? Did it feel like an old story?
- Do you think Vida saved Emmeline or Adeline?
- While Margaret is listening to Vida Winter’s tale, she is also seeking out her own ghosts to understand herself better. But as truths become revealed in both her and Vida’s stories, she begins to question if there are some things better left unknown. Do you think it is better to know the truth? Do you believe any of the characters would have benefited from not knowing about some of their family secrets?
- BONUS QUESTION (which, truthfully, could apply to any book that your club reads)
“I know that it is like to finish a book and find oneself wondering, a day or a week later, what happened to the butcher or who got the diamonds, or whether or not the dowager was ever reconciled with her niece. I can imagine readers pondering what became of Judith and Maurice, whether anyone kept up the glorious garden, who came to live in the house.”
Margret does her best to answer all the questions she believes a reader might have at the end of the story. Did she succeed? What questions were you still hoping to have answered before reading the last page?
Selected Reviews for The Thirteenth Tale
“And yet, with all it had going for it, somehow it fell flat for me. Somehow it felt slight and, eventually, tedious at the same time. There were definitely many interesting moments, but for some reason, the “gothic” elements of the story never swept me up in the passion and scandal the way it would if the Brontes or Wilkie Collins wrote it…That’s the bottom line, I suppose: I just don’t think Setterfield is that good a stylist. The story should have drawn me in but didn’t, and I set it down to writing that simply wasn’t as imaginative or lovely as it could have been.”
“Lots of people told me that this was a book I needed to read, but many of those people also warned me that I might find it slow. So I went into The Thirteenth Tale prepared for a subtle plot that moved at a gentle pace… well maybe my expectations are to blame but that wasn’t what I got. Slow?? Not for me. There was not a slow moment in this story because the prose itself was dynamic and consumingly evocative. I was intrigued by the mystery, seduced by the characters and caught up in page after page of well-written family drama… I, for one, was totally sucked into every aspect of the story. The writing had hold of me, the characters made me need to know more about their lives, the mysteries surrounding Winters’ youth kept me guessing.”
“At this point she meets her employer, and it is absolutely clear that yes, this is a gothic novel in the true tradition. It must be said though, that it is rather heavy handed. We are still very early on in the novel and it is beginning to feel derivative. The reader has espied references to “Jane Eyre”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Rebecca”, and when Vida begins the tale of her life story “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Woman in White” come instantly to mind. Just as a precaution though, to really hammer it home, Setterfield mentions four of these books in the narrative; in fact there are continual rather irritating refences to “Jane Eyre”. It is a leitmotif, and evidently Setterfield wants to pay homage to the Brontes, but more subtle references would have been more enjoyable for the reader.”
“Everybody has a story that they could tell, about their family, parents, siblings or their origins, that made them who they are. But childhood memories are not always happy. The story that the aging and gravely ill famous author, Vida Winter is about to tell to Margaret, her biographer of choice, contains remarkably little happiness. It is full of unusual relationships, strange people that make even stranger choices and resulting secrets. […] If I was to complain about something it would be the after-explanations. It is not the first time that I find myself frustrated at the end of the book that I loved, when the main plot is done and all that is left is some loose ends. Graceful endings are obviously not easy. If I was to choose, I’d rather have it end too soon, than have it explain too much…but then after all, it is just a minor flaw.
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3 Books Like The Thirteenth Tale
If you are the type of book nerd who likes the whole meta thing about books that feature books, we have a whole guide on book about books, manuscripts and magical maps. If you liked the whole creepy gothic mood, then check out our guide for Mexican Gothic.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
This is a good pick if you liked the device of a narrated memoir and hidden secrets.
Monique Grant is a magazine reporter whose life is falling apart when she receives a strange request. The reclusive Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo is ready to tell her story, and she wants Monique to be the one to write it down. Dazzled by the tale of ambition and love, Monique’s fascination and connection to Evelyn grows, leaving her to uncover just how her own life is entangled with Evelyn’s. The story is a sweeping tale full of tragedy and hope across the decades.
Read it for book club and use our Evelyn Hugo discussion guide.
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
This is a good pick if you want to read more melancholy books about books.
During WWII in Nazi Germany, Death sees a young girl pocket a book she found lying in the snow. This is the beginning of Liesel’s story as Death watches her learn to read and undertake saving as many books as she can from the fires of the Nazi Regime. Death narrates the dark and melancholic novel as he sees glimpses of Liesel’s struggles with tragedy and finding moments of kindness and hope.
The Lake House, Kate Morton
This is a good pick if you want more of the missing kid and creepy old house vibe.
Detective Sadie Sparrow is seeking respite after a particularly troubling case but what she finds instead is an old house with secrets. Sadie follows the case of a young boy who went missing seventy years before, which leads her to the author Alice Edevane. Alie is not happy to have a detective show up at her door asking questions about her family’s tragic past, a past she has spent her life trying to forget.
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About Emerson Rose Craig
She’s an avid reader and writer. For her, books are a way of connecting with people, and experiencing lives far outside her own. Her love of make-believe worlds took her to Scotland where she received her MSc in Creative Writing in 2020. Her current reading goal is to read a book from every country.