For the next step in my Literary Exploration Challenge I decided to pick a genre that falls well and truly within my comfort zone. There's nothing like curling up on the sofa on a gloomy day with rain battering the windows, and getting lost in a creepy Gothic story. I just had to decide whether to go for a tried-and-tested classic or something newer, and in the end it was a more modern take on the Gothic theme that won out.
Margaret Lea lives a quiet existence selling antique books with her father and writing the occasional biography to bring in a few extra pounds. Her literary tastes tend towards the obscure, dusty tomes that are often left behind on the shelves of their shop, and she has never read anything by the infamous bestselling contemporary novelist Vida Winter. Even though she isn't a fan, she has of course heard lots about the reclusive Miss Winter who is best known for her collection Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation - a source of much speculation in literary circles as it contains only twelve stories. So Margaret is surprised to say the least when Miss Winter contacts her to say that she is ready to tell the world her life story and wants Margaret to be the biographer. It seems that the thirteenth tale might be her own.
I really enjoyed the first half of the book and got well and truly swept away in the story of Vida Winter's unruly childhood growing up with her disordered family in a crumbling manor house. Fair enough, at times it borders on cliché and borrows heavily (SO heavily!) from Gothic classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I started playing a sort of game with myself where every time a ubiquitous Gothic image was mentioned I'd check it off on a list in my head. Decaying manor house? Check. Unhinged but beautiful young woman sent to asylum? Check. Creepy twins? Check. Wandering on the moors in bad weather? Bingo! There's even more that I can't mention for fear of spoilers, but you get the picture. But despite the extent to which Setterfield has tried to emulate her literary heroes, it is done in a gripping and intriguing way and I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next. It kept me awake late at night, hanging on to read 'just one more chapter'.
I was so disappointed, then, to find myself completely losing interest towards the end. What happened?! I have pondered over what it was I didn't like but am struggling to put my finger on anything specific. Margaret is kind of an insipid protagonist and there is nothing much about her either to like or dislike. She has a few issues of her own going on in life, a difficult relationship with her mother for example, and in the parts of the book where we find her moping around and mulling over her own troubles I was impatient to get back to the main story. And then as time went on I stopped caring as much what happened in the main plot, too. Overall I think the whole thing probably went on just a bit too long for my liking.
Another thing - it finishes with one of those unnecessary and cheesy epilogues after the main story is over, that tells us what the protagonist goes on to do next in her life and is basically a modern equivalent of writing "and they all lived happily ever after". That kind of ending is one of my pet hates and if a book finishes that way it always means I go away from it feeling disgruntled!
It's a shame that the feeling I had on starting this book didn't hold out. Maybe it would have been different had it been 100 or so pages shorter, because I felt it had the potential to be a really enjoyable and engrossing Gothic tale but lost its way a little towards the end.