Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 12, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
13th Tale, Political Mags, $100 Baby, Blue Chip
If you only read one or two books a year -- a Grisham, say, or a Mary Higgins
Clark -- then The Thirteenth Tale is not for you.
This is a book for people who are in love with books. People who have skipped
lunch so they could buy books. People who, when they move, leave their
furniture behind but can't part with their books. People who pick up a tattered
copy of an Austen or a Heinlein or a Christie or a Twain or a Goldman or a
Brontë -- it doesn't matter the genre -- a book that has been much read and
much loved, and open it anywhere and start to read and they feel as if they
have just reconnected with an old friend.
Diane Setterfield's first novel -- her first! -- is narrated by Margaret Lea, a
young woman who works in her father's bookshop, which contains her dearest
friends: Her father and the books. But hers has not been as sheltered a life as
one might think. She was still young when she discovered that she was not an
only child, as she had thought. She was born a conjoined twin, and when they
were separated, her sister died.
This tragedy explained things. It explained the half-moon-shaped scar on her
side. It told her why her birthday was always celebrated in whispers between
Margaret and her father, while her mother hid away with a headache -- her
mother had never been able to get over her grief over the child who died, and so
remains estranged and aloof from the daughter that lived.
It also explained why Margaret had always felt that she was not alone, that a
twin waited just on the other side of every mirror, a girl exactly like herself, but
Margaret has taken, in recent years, to researching and writing slim
biographies of little-known and nearly-forgotten writers. It is an obscure and
unprofitable task, for few know of these writers and fewer care enough to read
about them. But for Margaret, it is something of a rescue, a kindness to people
who gave their lives to creating books and deserve to be celebrated, even if only
by a small group of readers.
But it is because of this avocation that Margaret is summoned to the home of
Vida Winter, the towering literary figure of the day. Winter is the kind of writer
-- rare, too rare these days -- who at once thrills those with literary
sophistication and those without it. Her stories are magical and vibrant, and
when Margaret first read her books, she was nearly consumed by them, for
Winter seemed to be able to tell her the secret dreams of her own heart. Her
books were full, it would seem, of truth.
Yet mystery surrounds Vida Winter. First, there is the matter of her first book,
a collection of unforgettable stories, entitled Thirteen Tales. The problem is
that the book contains only twelve stories. Was the title meant to be an
enigma, or is there a thirteenth tale?
The other mystery is Vida Winter's own life. Everyone who interviews her gets
a different life story, each more extravagant than the last. It is clear that
Winter is determined to divulge nothing about herself, responding to all
inquiries with more fictions.
Until now. Margaret arrives to find that Vida Winter is terminally ill and
wants, at last, to tell the truth. Her life story. And she wants Margaret Lea to
be her biographer. But Margaret is skeptical. She does not want to be merely
the latest in a long line of writers who were lied to by Vida Winter. She is
determined to find out the true truth, as it were -- the stories behind the
stories Vida Winter tells her every day, and which she transcribes every night.
This might sound like a tedious sort of story -- a boring person who listens to
another boring person tell a boring story, page after page.
Instead, it is one of the most achingly sweet and terrible stories I have ever
read, rich with unforgettable characters that can only be compared to those
created by Mervyn Peake in his Gormenghast books -- or Charles Dickens, or
Jane Austen. Or -- and this is clearly the touchstone of Setterfield's book --
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
For this story is thick with character and event. Twins born of possible incest,
who speak only to each other in an inscrutable twin-language and do terrible
things without a hint of conscience. A governess who takes the household in
hand, for good or ill; a doctor who is enlisted in a dangerous experiment; a
gentle giant who haunts the ruins of a burnt-out mansion; an old housekeeper
who, in her dotage, doesn't notice the filth that surrounds her; the old gardener
who becomes, in the absence of any other, the father to the very girls who
destroyed the topiary garden that was his reason for living; the gentle farmboy
who offers a lonely girl the only love of her life.
The book is not one you can skim or skip your way through. Setterfield's style
of writing is spare but reflective. She never tries to overawe you with her
language, but her powers of observation are keen, and whether she is unveiling
a landscape or a character's thoughts, we feel as though we are in the presence
of someone who has seen Beauty and Truth and is eager to share it with us --
but all in good time.
I never thought I would say this about any contemporary writer, but Setterfield
has created a book worthy of her literary forebears: A book to be set beside
Austen's and the Brontës', or -- more recently -- Thomas Hardy's or William
Faulkner's. She knows how to play the games of gothic romance, and those of
contemporary literature as well -- we play with unreliable narrators (for
various reasons) and veiled love stories, long-lost relatives and ancient
scandals, ghosts and evil twins and family insanity and suicide and all the
other stuff of melodrama.
Yet we receive it all through a luminous prose that inspires us with trust: All
things will be revealed and explained, and in the end we will find that the story
is painful, yes -- even tragic -- but also beautiful and true and joyful and fine.
I listened to the audio version of the book, with two fine readers, one for the
voice of Margaret Lea, the other of Vida Winter. They preserve the Englishness
of the language without being overwrought or exaggerated. But I also bought
the book in hardcover and have read long passages of it to myself, and it works
its magic either way.
Beware, though, of listening to it as you drive. You'll be so caught up in the
world that you'll miss freeway exits (I did) and sit in your driveway to allow a
chapter to end (I did) and make people wait outside your parked car as you
listen to the last few moments because you can't bear to interrupt a glorious
passage (I'm so sorry, Emily!).
If you know someone for whom books are a passion, give him or her The
Thirteenth Tale as a gift this Christmas, either as a hardcover or a book on CD.
It will be the best gift they receive. It will stay with them, as it stays with me,
as something to be treasured.
And if you only read books now and then, maybe you want to give this one a
try. Perhaps the only reason you haven't become a true devotee of reading is
that you were waiting for this novel to open up the floodgates.
How do you know what's true, when the only sources we have for news are
It's so easy to be frustrated when you see, for instance, the pre-election front-page above-the-fold placement of the story about the almost meaningless CIA
report on Iraq and the recruitment of new terrorists, which proved nothing, but
served to embarrass President Bush; while after the election, the jubilation of
our enemies at the victory of the Democratic Party was placed on page three,
which is the equivalent of making a news story stand in the corner until it can
learn to behave.
How can you learn to see behind the news? Maybe spend your life reading the
history of every era and nation and movement, as well as in-depth biographies
of the people whose decisions shaped the world in every age. It takes time and
knowledge to build perspective, to get a sense of which stories in today's news
are likely to be nonsense and which might actually have some connection with
reality. (Not that any amount of study can make you an infallible judge!)
But it's a little late for most of us to start on a program like that. So what we
do is rely on those who have lived their lives that way. By reading the right
magazines and journals, the ones that provide reliable, in-depth information,
we can become far more informed about current events than the talking heads
on the television.
Commentary, Atlantic Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, and The New Yorker are
periodicals that I have come to trust. Commentary is Jewish and conservative
-- the home of the "neo-cons" that Democrats love to despise. The New Yorker
is the drum major of the Left; its editorial pages are almost insanely anti-Bush.
But both magazines transcend ideological bias when it comes to simple matters
like fact-checking, and I have read important and truthful stories in the pages
The nice thing about Commentary is that its letters section is better than the
editorial pages of most magazines -- they give full voice to critics of their
Wilson Quarterly and Atlantic are less ideological, though one might say Wilson
leans a little right and Atlantic a bit more left; what matters is that both are
willing to go wherever the story leads, even if it outrages people of one stripe or
another. They give their writers the number of pages it takes to go far deeper
than any television or newspaper writer is ever permitted to go.
There are other magazines that help round things out for me. I have long
enjoyed The American Enterprise, though it is a bit triumphalist and doctrinaire
for me -- there is no part of the conservative package that it doesn't embrace in
every article, sometimes to the detriment of reliability. However, American
Enterprise is downright dispassionate compared to Harper's, a flamingly liberal
magazine that foams hatred of Bush out of every page -- but it's also funny
and well-written and keeps me abreast of the more intelligent and stylish
madnesses of the Left.
To this pantheon of periodicals I must add Claremont Review of Books: A
Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship. I've never seen it on a
newsstand, but twice someone has kindly sent me a copy, and both times I
found it to fall somewhere between Commentary and The American Enterprise.
It is more doctrinaire in its conservatism than Commentary, but not so
capitalism-happy as The American Enterprise, and from what I've seen it offers
smart, insightful views of the world.
The Claremont Review of Books can be found at http://www.claremont.org.
You can get a good sampling of the articles there, and if you click on Claremont
Review of Books wherever it appears on the home page, it will take you to a
page that offers to let you subscribe. It's only $14.95 a year for a folio-sized
journal on newsprint. It's messy and awkward and well worth the bother.
Robert B. Parker's new Spenser novel, Hundred-Dollar Baby, is as brisk and
clever as ever, but the story it tells is achingly sad. You can save people from
external dangers -- sometimes, anyway -- but you can't save them from their
own hungers and fears, if they refuse to learn or change. This novel doesn't
quite take on the stature of tragedy, but you get a taste of the sorrow of a life
badly lived, along with the nobility of other lives that are better spent. This is
what novels are for: To tell the truth about ordinary people. It's also what
romances are for: To show us heroes and help us believe they just might exist
in the real world.
I was delighted to discover that Swoozie's in the new section of Friendly Center
is now carrying far more bottles of their crisp, tiny chocolate chip cookies. This
suggests that people are buying a lot of them. Keep it up, folks! If they're
making money selling these cookies, they'll always carry them, which means I
can always buy them.
But speaking of cookies -- a month or so ago I reviewed the cookies from
Cheryl & Co., which are delicious and almost too rich to eat. I also mentioned
that I had rediscovered Blue Chip Cookies online at
Well, I have generously made the great personal sacrifice and ordered a couple
of batches of their chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles and I have to say,
these are the greatest store-bought chocolate chip cookies in the world.
Even better than the very good prepacked refrigerated cookie dough from
Nestle, though of course the Blue Chip cookies don't emerge fresh-baked from
your oven. You have to decide what is most important to you!
The Blue Chip cookies really do taste as though somebody baked them,
wrapped them up still warm, and shipped them off to you. Fresh. I must tell
you that my wife finds them a little too sweet for her (and they are indeed
sweeter than the little cookyettes from Swoozies) -- but she absolutely loves the
Blue Chip snickerdoodles, as does my chocolate-hating twelve-year-old.
So when I order my packages from Blue Chip (the "my way" assortment), I
always make them half chocolate-chip and half snickerdoodles. That means I
get all the chocolate chip cookies and a third of the snickerdoodles. I am a
happy, happy man.
Expensive? Oh, yes. But you have to set your priorities, folks. Do I get my kid
the new Nintendo Wii, or myself another few boxes of Blue Chip cookies? Oh,
this isn't even hard. The Wii probably won't be out in time for Christmas