Old-Fashioned Ending

Margaret Lea is an old-fashioned gal. She has an old- fashioned name and an old-fashioned residence over her father’s antiquarian bookshop, which she knows as well by feel as by sight. Promptly at 8 pm each night she retires to her rooms to read “old novels.” [her emphasis] She attributes this to her preference for what she deems to be proper endings: “[m]arriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind up everything nice and neatly.” This presage is a self-contained spoiler of sorts. The story that unfolds contains all of these elements and it most certainly will wind up nice and neat.

Margaret Lea is a biographer of the deceased, known mostly for a biography of a pair of brothers. She bears a more powerful but unknown biography of her own sister in the form of a scar where she was separated from her conjoined twin, who did not survive the separation. For these reasons she is selected by Vida Winter, the nation’s greatest living (albeit not for much longer) writer, to take down the inveterate storyteller’s true biography.

The writer has shared many stories from her past before, every one as false as her assumed name. As Vida Winter gradually reveals to Margaret Lea the sordid story of her true identity and the mystery of the missing Thirteenth Tale, the young biographer makes her own connections and discoveries that allow the story to continue beyond the ending the writer had planned.

Through these interdependent characters Diane Setterfield weaves an engrossing story, and the unique approach to unveiling a writer’s identity is laudable. I did find the missing twin element somewhat troubling, as I have an incomplete set of twins among my siblings. To me the most troubling part of this ghost story is the tidy way in which all of the loose ends are gathered into one old-fashioned quilt of an ending. In this respect I am more like the narrator’s father, who prefers the “beautiful desolation” of muted, ambiguous endings.

I enjoy old novels, but not for the same reasons that Margaret Lea does. In my formative years an interest in mythology lead me to reading the classics. The library at my junior high was hardly an antiquarian bookshop; when I had exhausted its lamentable dearth of classic literature I turned to my English teacher, Mrs. Hunt, whom I liked and trusted. She recommended Pride and Prejudice. Fifty pages into it I nearly threw the book at her head. Needless to say I have never cracked the cover of Jane Eyre, the classic so often referred to in The Thirteenth Tale.

Initially I shied away from reading The Thirteenth Tale due to this apparent influence. But I have progressed a little in my reading since junior high, and, like the doctor prescribing Sherlock Holmes to correct Margaret Lea’s inner Eyre imbalance, we could all stand to vary our reading habits from time to time. In that respect I am glad I read The Thirteenth Tale, even if I do not approve of its nice, neat ending. I’m not saying that I’m adding Jane Eyre to my reading list, but it might be time to give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a try!

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One Response to “Old-Fashioned Ending”

  1. Of COURSE you couldn’t resist! It’s a book…. about books! 🙂

    I’d looked at that one, too. It’s good to get your take on it. Maybe I’ll have to reconsider it.

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