The Thirteenth Tale: A Fellowship of the Worms Extravaganza

July 8, 2013 Blogging, Book Club, Historical Fiction 33

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

smarty mcwordypantsToday is the day we’ve all been waiting for! The Fellowship of the Worms is officially in session. Our inaugural book club choice was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. WARNING: We will be discussing the WHOLE book. This will no doubt include SPOILERS. If you did not read the book and would like to participate, pick up a copy of The Thirteenth Tale and give it a read. This post will be here waiting for you when you finish. Now that the particulars are out of the way, I’ll remind you of the premise here. I thought the book club questions for this book listed in the back were exceptional, so I’ve borrowed those ideas liberally as discussion points. Some of these I re-worded, some of these were born of my own brain juices, some of these are random and off topic. I’ll pose questions in bold and answer them in regular type.  If you don’t want your opinions influenced by my rantings, stick to the bold first. 🙂

Please chime in, so I am not talking to myself. Though I do enjoy my own company, carrying on a full conversation with oneself, even electronically, is a bit worrisome. You’re welcome to leave as many comments as you like- long, short, tackling all the questions, answering none of the questions, whatever. If you have your own blog and have written a review of The Thirteenth Tale or would like to answer any of these questions in your own forum, a linky will be at the bottom of this post so you can link up and play along.

Ready? Set? Here we go!

1. Being a twin is discussed at length in this novel, in particular, the advent of a twin language. Do you think this is unique to twins, or have you had a similar shorthand with your siblings? Also, is this not the cutest video ever?

So I’m kind of fascinated by the whole twin thing. I think it’s pretty well established that most twins share a bond closer than that of ordinary siblings. The twin language is, at least according to Youtube, a real thing. I think it’s most common between twins because they’re the same age, but I think if you had children close enough together, they might develop their own little shorthand too. My sister was 3 when I was born, so she was good and fluent in English by the time I started talking. I’d be willing to bet kids would figure out ways to communicate without formal language, regardless of twinship.

2. I’ve reviewed several books about books in this blog, notably The Bookman’s Tale and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. The Thirteenth Tale took the books about books category in a whole new direction. Let’s talk about the various roles that books and writing play within this novel.

Yes. Books and writing, writing and books. In this novel Ms. Winter escapes her own outrageous story by creating other stories. She sends journalists on wild goose chases trying to figure out her origins. Stories are a way to mask the pain she experienced at the hands of reality… Then there’s our sweet little bookshop clerk, Margaret. Books for her allow her to retreat almost entirely from the world at large. I don’t know that I can blame either character for their obsessions with writing and literature, but they certainly made for an odd set of circumstances.

3. The nature vs. nurture debate runs rampant throughout this novel. We see it in Charlie and Isabelle and then again with Adeline and Emmeline. Charlie and Isabelle have a very… unique… relationship as siblings. Charlie is clearly disturbed as he seeks out pain and cruelty. Do you think Isabelle shares his tendencies because of some inborn trait, or do you think Isabelle picked it up because Charlie brought her into his “games” at such a young age?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this one. I suppose I do find it unusual that a small child who is scratched to the point of bleeding doesn’t cry out… Then again, it’s hard to know what goes on in a child’s head. I used to like to suck on marbles. One of my earliest memories is of the day I choked on one (I was probably about 3.) The incident didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for marbles. So… Kids are weird all on their own. Do weird stuff to them when they’re little and you’re going to screw them up even worse. So, um. Don’t do that!

4. Nature vs. Nurture Part 2… Was anybody else curious as to just HOW the twins could have become feral? I know the Missus was old and John the Dig was rather distant, but do you think the fact that the twins grew as they did was simply a result of gross neglect or do you think their parentage may have messed around with the gene pool a bit?

Do I think it’s a little farfetched that our twins ended up being feral despite the fact that there were people around? Yes. I do. However, I’m of the opinion that given their, uh, questionable parentage, they may have had some neurons misfiring on a biological level. I have a hard time believing they would continue speaking in twin language and not even manage to pick up ordinary English given their circumstances. I think they had some crappy genetics to contend with. Incest is just never a good idea. Did we learn nothing from Oedipus (I know it was an ACCIDENT… And his children turned out okay…maybe a bad example…) What about that awful, awful Joffrey from Game of Thrones? Proof that incest (or twincest) is bad with a capital B.

5. In the middle of the book, Vida begins shifting her pronouns around while telling her story and referring to herself in the first person. How did you interpret this as you were reading? Did you assign it much significance?

I noticed this change, mostly because Margaret was all like “ooooh she switched her pronouns!” I interpreted this at the time as Vida breaking down and connecting more with her own past. I didn’t assign it the significance I later learned it deserved, that’s for sure!


6. Diane Setterfield never gives us an exact date for any of the events in this book, though she does leave some clues. Did any of you put your detective hats on and hit google? Anybody have a theory as to the time frame?

You bet your sweet fanny I hit google. I hate not knowing things. In “present” time (at least, the time where Margaret is chatting with Vida) I noticed a lack of cell phones, and zero mention of computers. Margaret writes everything with pencil and paper, and in spite of the availability of telephones, writes plenty of letters to accomplish her widespread correspondence. This makes me think she fears long distance phone charges, perhaps? I suppose she could have just been a bit of a luddite and shunned technology, but I’m placing the “current” time roughly in the 1960s-70s. I mean, they were snowed in for 5 days with a dead body, for heaven’s sake. I blame old timey snow plows.

The early story makes no mention of technology. The books that are already in publication in the library give a concrete era for the book to be set AFTER but it lacks specifics. Titles mentioned include Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), The Woman in White (1859), and Sense and Sensibility (1811). Cumpulsory education in England started somewhere around 1870, and since Hester Barrow expressed concern over the mysterious village boy not being in school, it’s safe to assume this was written after that. I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1890-1900… Which if Vida is in her 70s jives fairly well with my time frame for the “present.”

7. When Margaret falls ill after running about on the moors in the rain, Dr. Clifton comes to her aid with medicine, and diagnoses her with “an ailment that afflicts ladies with romantic imagination.” Did you find this condescending, or did it ring true for you given Margaret’s obsession with the Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, etc.?

Personally, I found the doctor’s diagnosis rather condescending, dismissing Margaret as a silly woman obsessed with silly romances. However… There may have been a grain of truth to it. She certainly spent the majority of her time wrapped up in old books as opposed to interacting with other human beings… Also, can I just mention how glad I am that things like aspirin and antibiotics exist? I swear, everything I’ve ever read claims that body temperature has nothing to do with getting sick, because getting sick is all about germs, but my word. The characters in the romantic novels Margaret loves have TERRIBLE immune systems. It pleases me that my getting caught in the rain is not a death sentence…

8. At one point Aurelius mentions that his adoptive mother preferred lighter stories than heavy ones. What effect has knowing the truth had on the characters in the novel? Do you think Margaret would have been better off if she hadn’t stumbled across the fact that she’d been born a twin? Would Vida’s life have been different if she’d been honest about her past from the beginning? Would Aurelius have gained anything knowing his story early on in life? Do you think it’s advantageous to know such heartbreaking truths, or do you agree with the old adage that ignorance is bliss?

Would Aurelius and Vida and Margaret have had easier lives if they hadn’t known all sorts of dastardly and heartbreaking secrets? Probably. Does that mean they didn’t have a right to know their history? Nope. I think Vida in particular would have had a worse time of things if she had told the public about her upbringing from the beginning. Lots of looky-loos would have been prying- I can’t blame her for keeping that to herself! As far as Margaret goes, it sucked to know she had a conjoined twin, but at least it explained why her mother was so aloof toward her… It certainly doesn’t excuse it, but it helps Margaret understand the hot mess of her mom’s psyche. And Aurelius? Sure he uncovered some painful secrets, but then? Then he got a FAMILY. And that made me really really happy!

9. Hester Barrow, the twins’ governess, is obviously very intelligent, yet is relegated to a role as childcare provider when she is clearly suited to a more academic career path. She gets involved with Dr. Maudsley because she knows that any research she produces will not be taken seriously. Many of the 19th century female writers that feature in this book originally published their work under male names. Do you feel that this stigma still exists? Did I really have to throw a feminist question in here? Of course I did.

I got a little ragey when Hester couldn’t do her own research. She had terrible methods, of course, but they were no worse than any other science of the times. She had the best intentions and was all sorts of scholarly. I mean, I’m glad she was able to hook up with Dr. Maudsley (in more ways than one) but it annoyed me that she couldn’t go it alone.

10. Did you see that ending coming?!?!?! Did you believe that Adeline could have turned into a functional 13 year old girl out of the blue or did you suspect something fishy? Did you catch any of the early clues? Did your head feel all explodey?

At first, I thought Setterfield was going to say the girls were triplets, at which point I would have rolled my eyes and thrown the book at a wall, because it was really much too good to have taken a soap operatic turn like that. I had caught onto the idea that maybe the twins were so effed up in part because they were likely fathered by Charlie, but when when it turned out that Vida was a child of Charlie’s on some random poor girl he’d raped, I was like “ooooooh!” Because there had totally been clues about that early on. Lightbulb moment.

11. So, Bookworms, yay or nay on The Thirteenth Tale? Did you like it?

Personally, I loved this book to pieces. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did!

UPDATE on LINKY: I’ve removed the Linky code because I angered the internet gremlins somehow and can’t get it to work properly. If you wrote anything on your own blog, throw a link in the comments section. I’ll try to collect and highlight them in a wrap up post of some sort. Sorry about the tech fail, y’all!

For next month, we’ll read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron. Discussion date will be Monday, August 12! I hope you’ll join me again!

33 Responses to “The Thirteenth Tale: A Fellowship of the Worms Extravaganza”

  1. ashley

    Yay! I read the Shadow of the Wind! Can’t wait for next month!
    I loved the Thirteenth Tale. It was so unique and had so many hidden secrets to figure out. It definitely kept me on my toes!
    So here goes
    1- I know several sets of twins and I do believe they have a special bond as evey sibling set does to some extent. But twins it seems a bit different.
    2- I liked the way books in this book kind of took on a role for themselves. Books were Margarets escape, as they were for Vida. I think their love and respect for books definitely helped them bond. Books were Vidas escape and I think it Helped her respect Margaret that Margaret had such a respect for books. That was their bonding interest.
    3- I think Isabel picked up a lot from Charlie. Kids learn a lot by what is seen and what is taught. I think a lot of what happened with her brother was a direct result of her insanity. Not to mention her upbringing.
    4- it bothered me that the twins were so feral. That certainly made me wonder about mental damage as a result of incest. They definitely were neglected but it seemed to me that most of their metal incapabilities were just that, a result of their mental state.
    5- Vida was so closed off at the beginning of her story-telling. In the middle when Margeret realized she switched her pronouns I thought the same thing as you. I figured Vida was getting more comfortable telling her tale that she was just connecting with her past and connecting with Margaret more…..until later in the book when it all clicked! (The mist!)
    6- I though about what time frame this took place through the entire book! I felt like when the twins were growing up it must have been somewhere in the early 1900s. (This is kind of a pet-peeve of mine- not knowing when the book takes place)
    7- I did not like Dr. Cliftons diagnosis when Margaret fell ill. That was kind of an asshole thing to say! But, it was true. Margaret was a very secluded person with just her books to keep her Company. Dr. Cliftons comment did help her to realize that she’s got a lot of baggage that needs dealing with!
    8- I think everyones stories in this novel hold significant meaning. No matter how or when the characters found out the truth about their lives, it was a major piece of them all accepting the truth of their pasts. I can’t blame Vida for not being truthful about her li. Who wants to be mimixed up in that sort of f-ed up craziness? I doubt she would have been as successful if the truth were public about her life. Margaret always knew something was mmissing from her life and she spent her timeballed up in her own little world instead of just dealing with her issues. It took hearing the truth of someone elses life for her to understand her own.
    9- some women just need a push I suppose!
    10- I was so shocked! There was so much craziness going on in the twins lives, then BAM! Their was a sane sister being hidden? Nuts! I do fell like Vidas connection with her sister was something strange. Not quite bordering a Charlie/Isabel connection, but obviously an not a normal connection seeing how Vida had to take care of her only remaining family member and harbor all those family secrets.oh the secrets!
    11- hidden siblings! Secret babies! Crazy unexplainable mist! Incest! Crazy sibling relationships! Secrets! Lies! Insanity! If all this isn’t the making of a great book then I don’t know what is! I really did enjoy this book! Great first selection! Can’t wait to discuss The Shadow of the Wind!

    • Words for Worms

      Wahoo! Ashley, I love your comment! Vida’s connection to the remaining twin was a little odd, wasn’t it? I’d like to chalk that up to her living in the shadows and having no real family. Your reaction to #11 made me laugh. Guffaw, even!

  2. Megan M.

    Oh man… such good questions and such good thoughts! I read the book quite a while ago when it was first published, but I totally loved it. I always identify with awkward, serious young women who would rather read than talk to people. Haha! And I loved getting to read Vida Winters’ version of Cinderella… I can’t remember now whether any of her other stories were readable but I remember that one. And I definitely didn’t see the twist coming at the end.

    Twin language is such a cool phenomenon. I’ve always wished I could invent a language. I’ve tried but it never comes out right. I do think putting any two babies of similar ages together would result in them figuring out how to “talk” to each other, but not to the same degree as twins. Twins are SO cool. They’re an instant science experiment.

    Family secrets… would they be happier people if they didn’t know? Probably. But I’m of the opinion that families should never keep secrets like that because people ALWAYS find out. Always. And then it’s much more painful, knowing that certain people knew all along and kept it from them. It gives them a crisis of identity. People should just be upfront about things from the beginning, especially when you’re talking about who your real parents are or whether you had siblings.

    Your earliest memory is choking on a marble? MY earliest memory is nearly choking on a butterscotch candy! I wanted a peppermint but I kept grabbing butterscotches from the candy bag so I just gave up and ate it… and then almost died. I was highly suspicious of butterscotch candies until years later.

    • Words for Worms

      Twins ARE cool. You’re right- insta science right there. I love when a book can surprise the crap out of me, you know? I don’t like being able to predict everything, and I was like, WAIT. WHAT?! I’m a terrible liar, which extends to a good portion of secret keeping, since a lot of secret keeping involves lying, to keep the secret and all. So. No big family secrets in my house. Also. We are clearly bonded on a cosmic level, what with the choking and all. I prefer butterscotch to peppermint, which also means we could share bags of candy without fighting. Do you think PERHAPS we are TWINS separated at birth?!?!

      • Megan M.

        No news would make me happier, Katie. LOL There must be some reason that all three of my sisters are blonde and petite and I am a stocky brunette.

  3. lauratfrey

    I haven’t read it, but keep hearing about it. But oh my god those babies!! I can’t believe I watched the whole thing. My cubicle neighbours are probably confused right now.

    • Words for Worms

      I KNOW, right? My MIL showed me those babies a while back, and when this book brought up twin language I was like… MUST FIND VIDEO!!! It kills me!

  4. Wayne

    Identical twin studies are the Rosetta stone of science. Since they have all the same chromosomes they are often highly correlated in behavior, health, and susceptibility to illness. Fraternal twins are another story.

    • Words for Worms

      Hard to study identical twins ethically though. The whole nature vs. nurture debate can only be studied if you separate the twins, and that is, as we learned REALLY MEAN.

      • Wayne

        Probably a lot of twins in different foster homes. If they’re behavior problems who would be patient enough to put up with two of them. I think Kipling said “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.” I would add being a foster parent of problem twins 😉

  5. Cindy

    1. Does quoting Smokey and the Bandit, Dumb and Dumber, and other movies at each other, like my brothers and I do, count as a secret language? I kind of think that it’s probably mostly with twins, but your theory of very close siblings might be true too. One of my brothers is two years younger than me and I remember having to translate what he was saying so my parents could understand. i don’t think it was a shorthand though. More like I could just understand what he was saying better than they could. But who knows?

    3. I think with Isabelle it is probably a combination of both. Her parents were odd, and then the way she was brought up didn’t help. But you’re right, there is no telling what goes on in a child’s mind. One of my earliest memories is of sticking a finger in a stapler and stapling it. And I distinctly remember thinking about it before I did it. And then crying when I started bleeding, of course!

    4. With Emmaline and Adeline, I thought it was partly something inherited given their parents. And then I know John the Dig and the Missus were around, but it seemed like after a certain point they stopped trying to have some sense of order in the house and just neglected everything, including the children.

    5. I didn’t really pick up on this until Margaret did. And then I just assumed it was because Adeline herself had changed. That prior to then, it was like she was a different person than the one she became. I never imagined that she was literally a different person!

    6. No, I didn’t turn into a detective and try to figure out the time period. I think I assumed that it was a little earlier than you came up with, but maybe that’s because I was thinking more about when she was a child and not when she was telling her story.

    7. I totally felt like the doctor was condescending! I thought, “really, the silly woman needs to read some Sherlock Holmes to settle her nerves? thanks, doc!” I was surprised that she didn’t feel the same way. And that it seemed like maybe they were courting by the end of the book.

    8. I agree with you here, it’s better to know than not to know. I was so happy that Aurelius got a family that accepted him with open arms! I think it was better for Margaret as well, because even though it sucked, it helped explain her mother. And Vida, I guess it would depend at what point she started with the truth. From the very beginning might have been best, instead of her being the ghost of the house. But once she started being Adeline, and then after the fire, I think there was no good way to be honest about who she really was.

    9. I got so annoyed when Hester had to pretend to be a simple girl in order to get the doctor to listen to her. I do feel like some of the stigma still exists.

    10. I did not see the ending coming at all! I had wondered about triplets, but for some reason never thought about another child of Charlie’s. I just went along with Vida’s story that after Charlie died, that Adeline decided she needed to take charge if she wanted to stay with her sister. I thought that because she did seem to focus sometimes, that it was a choice that she was making to not interact with others or be a functional person.

    11. I loved this book so much! I thought the writing was beautiful. I usually read lighter books, but found this one delightful and a welcome change.

  6. Sarah Says Read

    Sooooo I realized that reading through your post, I barely remember anything from this book! Lol. I read it several years ago and I remember not being crazy about it. Since I have nothing worthy to contribute on that front…

    Those babies are adorable! That one baby was cracking the other baby up. Too cute!
    And yayyyyy The Shadow of the Wind. I am totally due for a re-read of that one, so I will totally be joining in! 🙂

    • Words for Worms

      Wahoo! Glad you’re joining in! I can’t get enough of those babies. I need to try to work that “dadadadaada” joke into my repertoire. Do you think you have to be an adorable baby to pull it off?

  7. Heather Christena Schmidt

    I don’t have much to say about Thirteenth Tale at this point, although I will say that I finally finished it thanks to your fellowship AND I have mixed feelings about it, which is why I’m reserving comments until later.


  8. bookgeeking

    I am new to this and your blog, sorry if I am doing it wrong. I loved the thirteenth tale. I never invented a language with my sister but I did invent one with a childhood friend and I still remember some of it, I think it’s just a way for kids to take a bit of control and privacy.

  9. Kay Vargo

    2. SYMBOLS:
    A. Day and Night. Note that most of the story is in the dark. Even Margaret’s scar is a crescent-shaped moon. Mirrors over and over. Windows over and over. Death.
    B. Ms. Winter’s outer appearance disappears as the real story is told. IE. Her hair finally cut off. False eyelashes gone, Rings won’t fit on fingers
    C. Twins. (note that Winters wanted to become a part of the group and never could. In addition, she tried to create a new group of her, the baby, and Emmeline. Would it have worked?)
    D. Green. eyes, p 26, and p.19 empty eyes symbolic of Great Gatsby billboard, p.11. Margaret’s curtains, p.54. W’s green and gold letter paper, p. 187 Emmeline and “green-dressed sister”, p. 258, green bottle, p 259 Emmeline gives W. green ring, and green shard in treasure chest
    D. Names, such as Shadow (cat has green eyes), Vida, Winters, Angelfield (note that it sits incorrectly)
    E. Jane Eyre references
    F.. Dirty vs. clean
    G. Pronouns
    H. Gardens
    3. BOOKS : Ms. Winters escapes own outrageous story by creating other stories. Stories are her way to mask pain . Margaret: books allow her to escape life. W’s house is dark, p. 41. Only in library could you breathe. Why doesn’t she have a 1st edition of Thirteen Tales, p. 42, when she has so many other copies.
    4. HEALING for both Margaret and Winters. M’s family, p. 19, p. 28, doesn’t touch, yet at end M touches and so does Winters. Note at end when Margaret gives A his mother’s casket, the flowers are emerging through the snow.
    5. COMPLETION: Is the 13th Tale the beginning of Winter’s story, which Margaret must finish? pages 357 and 400
    6. WHO DIED? Note Margaret’s references to the twin she meets. Note that Emmeline changes with the baby’s birth. In the fire, she fights her twin. When W. pulls out “Emmeline” and tells her the baby is safe, the twin returns to the fire. At the end, she becomes comatose just as she did when they were separated as children. In addition, she keeps digging up the earth.
    7. TWIN RETURNS: Finally, Margaret is able to lay her past behind her and accept her life, including the doctor’s possible presence. By the twin coming to say goodbye, Margaret is healed.

    We had great fun with the book. Hope you will, also

  10. Carolynn

    Prepping to host a book club on this book right now and I found your blog. What a fantastic review and meaningful questions. Thank you! I loved this book too and am looking forward to a great discussion. Thanks again! I’ll check back later to see what other books you recommend.

    • wordsfor

      I’m so glad you found this old post! If you ever need book recommendations, come on back and check out the archives.

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