The story begins in an old bookstore run by Margaret Lee and her father. It is the kind of book store that may soon not exist anymore. The store owner loves books and has passed this love along to his daughter. The mother of Margaret is disengaged from daily life. (The reason for this is revealed in due time). The bookstore makes little or no profit. The income of the family comes from the father's work as a rare book finder for wealthy collectors. Some days only three or four customers come in the shop. The time setting of the novel is not precisely specified (in fact in the study group questions in the back of the book we are asked to guess when it took place) but it is in a time before malls, before TV, before cell phones. It was a time when bookstore owners and employees loved books and did not have to answer to stock holders. If asked to guess I would say in the 1920s (in England).
The story is told in the first person by Margaret.
The Shop itself makes next to no money. It is a place to write and receive letters..In the opinion of our bank manager it is an indulgence, one that my father's success entitles him to. Yet in reality-my father's reality and mine; I don't pretend reality is the same for everyone-the shop is the very heart of the affair. It is a repository of books, a place of safety for all the volumes, once so lovingly written, that at present no one seems to want to read...And it is a place to read. A is for Austin, B for Bronte, C for Charles and D for Dickens.Margaret is a writer. A writer of biographies of only slightly known figures, people who live in the shadows of the famous and fade into "profound obscurity" upon their death. One of her biographies very much impressed Vida Winter, a beloved author of many books and a woman greatly venerated. She has given numerous interviews detailing her life, each of them totally different from the others. One day Margaret gets a letter from Vida Winter (she is such a formidable person that, even though fictional, I cannot bring my self to just call her "Winter"). Margaret is requested to come to her house. When she gets there Ms Winter tells her that she wants her to write the true story of her life.
What follows is a very compelling gothic tale of the life and family of Ms Winters. The plot action was totally compelling and had numerous great surprise twists. Some wonderful things happen and some heart breaking ones.
We see how the reading life manifests itself in some very diverse (but also very similar) people. Ms Winters has constructed her self into an iconic character through the internalizing of old books. She is hiding a terrible secret, maybe we will learn it maybe we will not. Margaret's father has used his love of books to make a living and to create a sanctuary to retreat from a troubled marriage with its own tragic story. Margaret loves books totally. She recasts the things she sees as if they were events in Jane Eyre. (This aspect of the reading life is also displayed in Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki and in his Arrowroot). Margaret does not worry too much about her personal life as she knows as long as she has her books she will be ok. Charles, an older quite well of man, plays a large role in the plot though he is not center stage very much. Life has not gone his way. He completely retreats into his library living in his books. He is so caught up in The Reading Life that he more or less emerges from the library once every few months to sign some checks to keep his family going but he probably has not bathed in this period.
The Thirteenth Tale shows a deep love of books and The Reading Life. It is beautifully written. The characters in the book were very real for me and I cared about each of them. Margaret's father gave his daughter a great love of reading and a love for books. She grew up as a reader. The story line is just so much fun and so clever. The Thirteenth Tale made me want to reread some books I read long ago, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and read Rebecca and The Woman in White for the first time. The Thirteenth Tale is a work of subtle and exquisite intelligence by a great story teller. As I finished this book I had a vision of The Bronte Sisters eagerly pressing The Thirteenth Tale into the hands of Wilke Collins who will advise Arthur Conan Doyle that he has found a mystery that would challenge Sherlock Holmes. The book does have some darker elements and it requires your attention as there are a lot of twists and turns in the plot.