This is totally not my usual type of book, but a reader acquaintance is a big fan of the author, and I do like books about books, so I decided to give this one a try. It’s mostly lovely. The writing is so good – I can see why my acquaintance is a fan.
Margaret is a self-sufficient introvert who works at the bookshop her father owns. She’s an amateur biographer, doing research for fun and occasionally writing an article or book about a person who strikes her fancy.
Vida Winter is a hugely famous, hugely successful author who is known for being a bit of a liar about her background. She tells every interviewer a different story about her childhood, and nobody knows the truth. Now on her deathbed, she reaches out to Margaret and says she finally wants to tell the truth, and she wants Margaret to be her biographer.
Margaret basically only reads ancient nonfiction, so she’s never even read a Vida Winter book, but after a visit to the author and a cryptic remark about twins (Margaret has her own complicated history with twins), she agrees to the job.
Then we get a long, slow, intricately told story of a deeply dysfunctional family and the twins it ultimately produced. Margaret takes breaks occasionally to fact-check things, but it seems like Ms. Winter is telling the truth, no matter how bizarre the tale gets. There are a ton of references to Jane Eyre, and lots of familiar beats, but Setterfield does a great job of keeping things fresh and interesting. And there is SO much story – loyal servants, bonkers relatives, unethical amateur science experiments, a governess I would love to see a movie about, and lots more (as well as Margaret’s whole backstory, which of course she thought was enormously interesting – me, less so).
All of this, though, didn’t help me love the book. Ms. Winter was kinda fun, but I thought Margaret was a forgettable whiner (I wrote this review calling her X throughout, and had to go back and look up her name). And there’s a completely unnecessary twist at the end, and a couple of mysteries thrown in the middle. Just tell the story! You’ve got enough going on as it is. Some pieces of the story were really interesting, and the writing was really great, but I felt like I appreciated it more than I liked it.
P.S. I have noticed I talk about authors I love using their first names (Lois!) and authors I find just okay as their last names. Does anybody else talk about authors like they’re your close personal friend?