The Thirteenth Tale, By Diane Setterfield, Atria, 416 pp., $26
True book lovers are a breed apart. We're the ones who mark important occasions by what we are reading, and who recall our childhood through our favorite titles. Diane Setterfield seems to be such a person, with a passionate attachment to such romantic classics as "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," and "Rebecca." Her heroine, the tome-loving Margaret Lea, certainly is. Raised in a rare-book store, Margaret is a minor biographer, writing brief academic studies of almost-forgotten bookish personalities somewhat like herself.
When she's approached in a rather mysterious way by a best-selling author, however, she doesn't know what to make of it. She's not familiar with Vida Winter's works and can't figure out why the famous author has chosen her as her biographer.
The story, as it unfolds, is intriguing. Winter is a recluse and is known for fabricating a new history to anyone who tries to interview her. Although she has churned out novels, "56 books in 56 years," she has never revealed anything about her own life, and the hook she dangles to capture Margaret is the truth. In her letter, she relates the story of a young man, apparently one of many journalists along the way who asked for the truth -- and was denied it. Now, she says, "it is time." Margaret succumbs to temptation, but finds out that Winter has her own way of telling a story, even when that story is ostensibly true.
She will not be rushed, or questioned, and after she summons Margaret to her Yorkshire mansion, she feeds her story to the younger woman bit by bit. This could be because she is ill, at the end of a long life. But it also fits with her reputation as a storyteller, keeping her reader enthralled with just enough adventure and detail to leave her hungry for more. This method also allows Winter to seed clues to her true identity throughout and keep those of us who are eavesdropping on the two women guessing, although at times Margaret seems either deaf to the obvious or preternaturally gifted at deciphering what is real, and what not.
Setterfield is neither a Bronte nor a DuMaurier, and her adventure creaks at times -- particularly when it comes to solving Winter's longest-lasting mystery. But this debut novel gets a lot of that rich bookishness right, heavy on the gothic detail and romantic suspense. There's Margaret herself, raised in the quiet and dust of Lea's Antiquarian Booksellers. There's the vague era, too. Although the story is presented as roughly contemporary (``November" is the only time reference), all the references are to the 19th century: The prolific Winter is referred to as ``our century's Dickens," and correspondence is done by hand written letter.
Archaicisms abound: The housekeeper is known as ``Missus," the gardener is a descendent of previous loyal servants, committed to the topiary pruned by his grandfather. Impoverished nobility live on the rabbits and pheasants of their lands, along with endless cups of tea, as the moors beckon and a ghost may or may not be walking the estate's library each night. And references to those earlier greats run throughout. Setterfield gives us crazy wives, bookish heroines, wild children, inappropriate romances, and a burning mansion to top all.
It's a lot to balance, and Setterfield almost does it. When the end arrives, it feels slightly rushed. Everything falls into place. But the final revelation, hinted at from the start, seems a bit far reaching. A few more hints, a little more basis for the ending, wouldn't have spoiled this mystery. In fact, if it extended this rich read by more pages, readers -- the real readers -- would only have been grateful.