Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise–she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.
I read this book a few years ago and was absolutely in love with it. This is a novel for bibliophiles and neo-gothic lovers! The narrator, Margaret, is constantly lost in books and stories, and is more interested in fictional or dead lives than those of living, breathing humans. So when she accepts Miss Winter’s request, little did she know that she would come to care more and more for human companionship and stories outside of bound pages.
There are so many elements of gothic literature within this work. Even though Miss Winter and Margaret blatantly state and share passions for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White, The Turn of the Screw, and Dickens and Austen, each of these novels come into play within this book. I read this novel before I’d read Woman in White or Turn of the Screw, and I could still follow along just fine – there is nothing to fear! But after having read all the novels referenced, I had an uncanny feeling every time I noticed the parallels and similarities. It’s shocking, and so subtle that it is woven into the text brilliantly.
The great thing about returning to this novel after a few years was that, once again, I was sucked into the mystery. I could not remember what the explosive ending was. I remembered twins and burning libraries and haunted governesses, and that the author really had something to say and needed to say it before her death. I remembered that Margaret experience episodes similar to that of Victorian women, and that the doctor politely laughed during her condition. And, of course, I remembered all the book love. Everything that is said about books, I wholeheartedly relate to. I’m sure other bookworms can, too.
But the ending! Oh, all the tension and build-up was worth it! To experience that same shock and horror and heartbreak was wonderful. (Can you really say that?)
Goodreads: 3.9 of 5