Valerie Martin 1948–
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Martin's career through 1994.
Chiefly known for her novel Mary Reilly (1990), Martin has received critical acclaim for her neo-Gothic writing style, her psychological character portraits, and her striking evocation of mood and place. Emphasizing sexuality, violence, obsession, death, and issues related to power, her novels and short stories focus on male-female relationships and humanity's link to the natural world.
Born in Sedalia, Missouri, Martin was raised in New Orleans—the setting for much of her fiction—and attended the University of New Orleans, where she earned a B.A. in 1970. She received an M.F.A. in playwriting at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. Her first collection of short stories, the little-known Love, which has been described in a Booklist review as "[e]motionally painful, iconoclastic, brilliant," made its debut in 1977, and in the following years she published the novels Set in Motion (1978) and Alexandra (1979). Martin has taught creative writing courses at various institutions, including the University of New Orleans, the University of Alabama, and Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the University of Alabama, Martin met Canadian novelist, short story writer, and poet Margaret Atwood, who became a mentor and close friend. After receiving various rejections for A Recent Martyr (1987), Martin gave the manuscript to Atwood, who showed it to her publishers and eventually got the work published. Martin is also the author of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories (1988), Mary Reilly (1990), and The Great Divorce (1994). The movie rights to Mary Reilly were purchased by Warner Brothers in 1992; the film version of the novel stars Julia Roberts and was directed by Tim Burton.
Martin's writings typically focus on personal freedom, love, sex, death, and the dark side of human nature. In Set in Motion, a novel classified by Margo Jefferson as a "gothic melodrama," the main character, a social worker named Helene, is involved with three men: a drug addict, a friend's fiancé, and a coworker's mad husband. Fear drives Helene, and, trying to remain sane in an insane world, she decides that "staying in motion" and remaining emotionally unattached are the only ways to guarantee her personal freedom. The cryptic Alexandra is largely set in the Louisiana bayou and concerns the relationships be-tween a male civil servant and two women who are possibly involved in a lesbian affair and allegedly responsible for the murder of a former lover whom the protagonist resembles. Infused with references to myth, folklore, and mysticism, Alexandra examines such topics as sexual aggression, manipulation, and betrayal. Sex and violence as well as religion are also central to A Recent Martyr, which is set in a plague-ridden New Orleans overrun with rats. Exploring the nature of love, the novel centers on a heterosexual, sadomasochistic couple and their friendship with a young postulant with a predilection for sacrifice. The popular Mary Reilly retells Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1876) from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll's maid. Continuing Stevenson's focus on the individual's potential for good and evil, Mary Reilly also examines issues related to child abuse, individual growth and development, gender roles, and the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Martin's most recent novel, The Great Divorce, similarly draws upon another popular work in the horror genre. Sharing similarities with the cult film classic Cat People (1942), The Great Divorce incorporates three distinct narratives. While the main plot focuses on the disintegration of one couple's marriage, each story line focuses on the theme of separation—from nature and from loved ones—and features female characters attracted to cats or endowed with feline qualities. Central to the volume is the legend of the Louisiana Cat Woman, who, according to Katherine Dunn, "was transformed into a leopard long enough to kill her brutal husband but resumed her human form to be hanged for the crime." Martin's focus on relationships as well as the link between nature, death, and the human condition are also central to her short fiction. In "Surface Calm" from Love, for example, a woman wraps herself in chain and barbed wire while separated from her husband. The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories features such fantastic characters as a werewolf and a mermaid, reiterating Martin's focus on sex, violence, the supernatural, and nature. Other stories from this collection concern a woman who kills her male dog after she is betrayed by her adulterous husband, a child whose house is inhabited by a large rat, a character who engages in blood-letting to achieve personal happiness, and a woman who believes that her pet snakes have invaded her imagination.
Martin's fiction, which has generally been well received, is lauded for its lean prose style and its focus on female characters, power, sexuality, male-female relationships, and humanity's baser, animal instincts. Employing elements of mysticism, folklore, the macabre, and the supernatural in her work, Martin has been described as a neo-Gothic writer and has been favorably compared with such "horror" writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Like other Gothic writers, Martin examines nature's destructive capabilities and humanity's inherent baseness and affinity for violence, but critics argue that she breaks with tradition by focusing on interpersonal relationships and issues related to sexuality, freedom, and betrayal; these critics also stress Martin's use of female protagonists—these heroines, however, have sometimes been castigated by feminists as passive, masochistic, and victimized. Martin remains best known for Mary Reilly, which despite its foreign setting, has been described by Rob Smith as "a quintessential Martin novel." With its emphasis on social mores, unrequited love, and dualities, Mary Reilly has been inevitably compared to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although occasionally faulted for offering nothing new to Stevenson's tale, Mary Reilly has been praised as an essential companion piece to the novella and, like Martin's other works, lauded for its insights into human nature and the human condition, moral hypocrisy, male-female relationships, and individual and sexual freedom.
Love (short stories) 1977
Set in Motion (novel) 1978
Alexandra (novel) 1979
A Recent Martyr (novel) 1987
The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories (short stories) 1988
Mary Reilly (novel) 1990
The Great Divorce (novel) 1994
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SOURCE: A review of Set in Motion, in The New York Times, June 23, 1978, p. C23.
[Broyard is an American critic and essayist. In the following review, he favorably assesses Set in Motion, noting Martin's focus on male-female relationships.]
Helene, the narrator of Set in Motion, is walking down the street with Richard, the husband of her closest friend. Although she has run into him accidently, she says, "I sensed that he was up to something." And of course he is. Everybody, everywhere, is up to something; and it is this that I often miss in modern fiction. It sometimes seems, in the novels and short stories I read, that no one is up to anything.
Miss Martin even seems to know what people are up to. While I think that by now I would have settled for an author who simply recognized the fact that people are scheming, striving and sweating with intention, it is still more satisfying to find one who actually knows, and tells me, what it is that they are trying to do.
Now, you might suppose that she arrived at her insight into people by oversimplifying them, by giving them obvious things to do. On the contrary: her characters seem to have passed beyond disillusionment into a deeper stratum of behavior. They don't fool around. When Helene asks Richard's wife Maggie whether she loves him, Maggie answers: "I'm determined to." When she warns Maggie...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: "Escaping Relations," in The New Leader, Vol. LXI, No. 16, July 31, 1978, pp. 15-17.
[Merkin is an American novelist, critic, short story writer, and editor. In the following excerpt, she offers praise for Set in Motion, relating the novel's thematic focus on love and emotional "disengagement."]
As the title of her powerful and unsettling first novel, Set in Motion, suggests, Valerie Martin writes about our contemporary romance with mobility, the freedom to get up and go—generally away from rather than toward involvement. The allure of disengagement is a recurrent and popular American motif: Innumerable films, from Five Easy Pieces to the more recent Looking for Mr. Goodbar, revolve around some aspect of our incapacity for sustained emotional commitment, and it is the favored subject of that elusive cultural avatar, Bob Dylan. What Martin manages to convey, in language all the more resonant for being so determinedly low-keyed, is that this obsession with flight, or at least the maintained possibility of flight, creates a paralysis of its own, a subtle inertia of emotions rather than of limbs. Near the end of the novel, Helene, the narrator, admits: "I would never, never give up the option to walk away." Yet a page or so later the covert desperation of her attitude emerges with an ominous clarity: "No wonder I'm frightened, I thought, I'm living in a world of...
(The entire section is 926 words.)
SOURCE: "The Push that Brings on Spring: Valerie Martin's Set in Motion," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 849-51.
[An American critic, editor, and educator, Fischer is both a friend and former teacher of Martin. In the following positive review, he discusses characterization and Martin's use of language in Set in Motion.]
To say what kind of novel Set in Motion is poses a number of pleasant embarrassments. To begin with, Set in Motion is a first novel, but is far too accomplished to be classified by that fact. It is also a local novel: its author lives in New Orleans, has set her novel there and in Baton Rouge, was my student in Baton Rouge, and is my friend. However, these facts matter to me in talking about this novel only because the novel triumphs over them. Against odds, Set in Motion absorbs even my own office furniture and makes it new to me, and that capacity to preserve itself in the midst of its own contexts is both the book's art and its lesson.
Really to live in this world and yet not really be of it is probably the only way people can remain sane; it is also probably the hardest way for people to live. Helene Thatcher, the main character of Set in Motion, spends the month or two that the novel spans trying to learn how to do this. To help her learn she has intelligence, courage, fear,...
(The entire section is 975 words.)
SOURCE: "The Beautiful Cliché," in The New York Times, July 21, 1979, p. 17.
[In the following, Broyard offers a negative assessment of Alexandra.]
Claude, the narrator of Alexandra, describes his past life as "pennypinching, joyless tedium," and I'm afraid that to me he remains tedious. Though he is only 49 years old, he says, "My hands and feet are stiff with arthritis, my back aches, and it hurts to straighten my knees." Spiritually he's not very limber either.
When Alexandra, the heroine of Valerie Martin's second novel, asks Claude whether he has ever been married, he says, "I've not had that good fortune." When he gets off a feeble riposte, he remarks, "I heard myself with satisfaction." After his first night in bed with Alexandra, he says: "She was delighted with my performance and I admit to being pleased with myself. Such powerful and satisfying passion had not so emboldened or sustained me in a long time …"
It sounds as if he's not at home in the English language, or in the world, either. Nor is he a man one looks forward to knowing better.
Alexandra is beautiful, so beautiful that she makes other people "look unevolved." What she makes me do is wonder whether the beautiful woman is not a cliché in fiction, a stock character who begs the question of character, whose behavior, through some convolution of snobbery, is assumed to be...
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SOURCE: "The Ephemeral Triangle," in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1979, pp. 10, 15.
[Du Plessix Gray is an American novelist, journalist, critic, and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she praises Alexandra's evocation of place, but faults Martin's characterizations and the credibility of the story line in "this bizarre neo-Gothic psychological thriller."]
The principal characters of this eerie, occasionally compelling novel [Alexandra] are a 49-year-old government clerk, self-defined as "poverty-stricken, dull and thin," who lives in a Gogolian morass of bureaucratic tedium in New Orleans; a nubile woman bartender skilled in the art of knife-throwing; and her closest friend, a seductive six-foot-two heiress who dabbles in classical piano and lives on her secluded estate in the bayou country. Claude, the clerk and first-person narrator, reaches such a paradisiacal state of multiorgasmic bliss upon his first encounter with the bartender, Alexandra, that he is instantly ready to follow her to the ends of the world. Which is precisely what she asks him to do. Alexandra has agreed to join her friend, Diana, during her confinement on the family estate (where she is expecting an illegitimate child) and she decides to bring Claude along.
There is an Amazonian streak throughout this bizarre neo-Gothic psychological thriller. Diana has suggested that Alexandra...
(The entire section is 796 words.)
SOURCE: "Bloody Bayou," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4011, February 8, 1980, p. 146.
[In the following favorable review, Salmans analyzes plot and characterization in Alexandra.]
Moss-hung, hot and steamy, the bayou country of Louisiana is popular territory among mystery writers as a setting for sinister intrigues, dark secrets, unsolved murders. These are the basic ingredients of New Orleans writer Valerie Martin's second novel, Alexandra, but any resemblance that the book bears to conventional thrillers is purely superficial. A remarkably accomplished novelist, Martin has seamlessly woven the elements into a complex story about two women, a man and their curious triangular relationship.
The story is told by the man, Claude, a middle-aged bachelor who falls suddenly and willingly under the spell of Alexandra, or Alex, as she is called—a handsome, strong-willed young woman with the rather bizarre hobby of knife-throwing. At Alex's urging he resigns his dead-end job, leaves his few friends and follows her to the bayou home of her childhood friend Diana, who is sequestered there while awaiting the birth of her illegitimate child. After years of solitary and fairly slovenly bedsitter life, Claude steps into paradise; in the midst of the bayous are a mansion and grounds, including a maze that has been hacked out of the undergrowth. But even before he crosses the threshold,...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
SOURCE: "Fever in New Orleans," in The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p. 37.
[Banks is an American novelist, editor, critic, and educator. In the following review, she favorably assesses A Recent Martyr.]
This is a striking book, one with as much depth as the reader dares to plumb. A Recent Martyr, written by Valerie Martin—the author of the novels Set in Motion and Alexandra—details the torrid and extraordinary sadomasochistic affair between Emma and Pascal. Through it, Emma tells us, she is "to discover the sweet and unexpected horror of [her] own nature." When Emma's husband discovers the affair, he wonders why she would choose a man as dangerous as Pascal. The fact is, Emma does not so much choose as succumb. She describes her attraction to him as "an onslaught of high fever," and it is at least that.
More danger still is posed by Claire, whom Emma and Pascal, through different avenues, are preordained to meet. Claire says that she aspires to sainthood, and her religious fervor even frightens nuns. Emma sees the young woman's innocence as a sure threat, and indeed it maddens and intrigues Pascal. Still, Claire has no need of him. She scourges herself instead. As Emma says, "Self-inflicted pain has a calming effect; it clears the head, diminishes one's fascination with the ego, and, most important, gives one the sense of having taken some real...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories, in The New York Times, January 13, 1988, p. C20.
[In the following review, Kakutani gives a favorable assessment of The Consolation of Nature, concluding that Martin's best work in the short story genre is Gothic in nature and rivals the work of Edgar Allan Poe.]
In one of the stories in Valerie Martin's new collection [The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories], a couple put their ailing pet snakes into wooden crates in the back seat of their car, in order to take them to see the vet. The car suddenly spins off the road, and when the police arrive on the scene, they find the boxes have been smashed. While lying in the hospital, recovering, Eva is told the snakes have disappeared, and, "as she lay beneath the onslaught of another shot of morphine, became convinced that they had escaped into her imagination. There they lay, cold-blooded and dangerous, dying from lack of nourishment and beautiful in their indifference to death."
This passage bears all of Ms. Martin's trademarks: a preoccupation with the dark underside of life, a taste for disturbing, even macabre imagery, and a tendency to use that imagery to delineate turning points in people's lives—the moment when innocence is replaced by an acute awareness of death and pain.
In "Death Goes to a Party," a woman named Atala loses...
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SOURCE: "Date with a Wolf Man," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1988, p. 22.
[Johnson is an American novelist, educator, critic, nonfiction writer, cartoonist, short story writer, and scriptwriter. In the following mixed review, he provides a thematic analysis of the short stories collected in The Consolation of Nature.]
The novelist Valerie Martin's first story collection, The Consolation of Nature, is a book with an eschatological message. "Death is not the end of life but the enemy of life," she writes in the book's last story, "Elegy for Dead Animals." This is not a story at all but the author's brief essay on her lifelong identification with animals and plants, and on such subject as "our tenacity to life, our terror of death." These concerns loosely bind her other stories, a couple of which occasionally generate suspense and capture the terror of nature and the nearly paralyzing humiliation of love's rejection, when Ms. Martin's lectures on life do not intrude.
Though Ms. Martin's prose is timid and safe in most of these stories, her better passages carry a reader into worlds that give us glimpses of the fantastic. "Sea Lovers" vividly dramatizes the evening that a mermaid, first portrayed as baffled by human beings, then as monstrous—an erotic death figure—washes ashore and murders a fisherman. Similarly, another creature of the wild and harbinger of...
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SOURCE: "Beauty as the Beast," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, p. 9.
[In the following review, Hinerfeld faults Martin's sensationalist writing technique and the serious tone of the short stories found in The Consolation of Nature.]
The Consolation of Nature is a title ironically meant. (It is also cleverly wrought, to sound authentically Romantic.) The principal subject of these freakish short stories is the fatal relation between people and animals. It's nightmare stuff: The rat scrambling in a child's long hair; the mermaid with her prize of fisherman's testicles; the dead cat, head trapped in a salmon can; the mice fed casually to the snake; the vicious dog, put to death. No consolation here.
We wince and turn away; Valerie Martin keeps on staring. Her fascination with the bloody and bizarre is itself fascinating. The genre is neo-Gothic hyperbole of the New Orleans School.
This is the literature of excess, swerving toward violence and despair. It's not easy to control such iridescent prose, such ardent imaginings.
At times, the control is absolute, and the work is beautiful. In "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," a widow realizes that freedom is hers: "She could do as she pleased, if she could ever find anything to please her again." (What does please her is blood-letting. In plain chilling prose, her lover complains,...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
SOURCE: "Waiting for the Story to Start," in The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, pp. 1, 36.
[In the following essay, Martin describes her views on writing and the creative process.]
Unlike babies, not all stories come from the same place, and not all people who create stories go about it in the same way. Every writer who has succeeded in bringing a story to life has also managed to kill a few, usually by force. Most of us have lost a few along the way too—stories that started as ideas, stories that came from arguments or from a desire to set the record straight.
(The entire section is 2900 words.)
SOURCE: "Masochists, Martyrs (and Mermaids) in the Fictions of Valerie Martin," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 455-50.
[In the following, Fischer analyzes Martin's focus on personal freedom and masochism in her novel A Recent Martyr and her short story collections.]
Valerie Martin is a major writer on the verge of being famous. Last spring, readers responded to her latest novel, A Recent Martyr, by reminding themselves of her two earlier novels, Set in Motion and Alexandra (1978, 1979). This winter the publication of The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories will send them in search of her first collection, Love (1977). Someone will recognize an important canon in formation and write a first article. Others will respond. Collectively, we shall embark on the necessary task of learning what Martin has to tell us.
A good guess at Martin's abiding topic might be freedom, freedom not so much from the will of others, but the interior freedom necessary to will one's own good. Martin's characters regularly lack that freedom. They are compulsives. The protagonist of her first novel, Set in Motion, speaks for most of Martin's characters when she observes at the close of the book, "I don't know what I'm doing…. I make mistakes. I keep making the same mistakes." Her lover's reply, "Honey,...
(The entire section is 2384 words.)
SOURCE: "Spirit and Belief," in The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 3, September, 1988, pp. 68-72.
[Morris is an American editor and critic who frequently writes about John Gardner. In the following excerpt, he comments on Martin's focus on relationships and death in The Consolation of Nature.]
The relationships drawn in Valerie Martin's The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories seem streaked with terror and fear. Love often warps into perversity, into its wolfish, angry shape; lovers become victims, prey and predator. In "Death Goes to a Party," this love-sinister is clearly prefigured in a fantastic love-masquerade encounter between Wolf and Death:
Then he lifted his face over hers and she saw that what she sought could not be found. His teeth were bared and he salivated so heavily that his mouth was frothy. His eyes were terrible—cold, uncanny, and mad with a kind of lust Atala had never seen before…. Then all her silly wiles, all her delusions of feminine intuition, all her strategies, her powers of observation, all the frivolous superstition on which she had relied in the past were nothing to her, and she was stripped to the bone by what she understood to be her predicament.
Women, suggests Martin, live with this inherent fear, with this acknowledged sense of the male's animal nature. Even as girls, these...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
SOURCE: "In Time of Plague," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4465, October 28, 1988, p. 1211.
[In the following review, Kaveney provides a mixed appraisal of A Recent Martyr.]
Comparisons between Sacred and Profane Love are unfashionable in an agnostic world; but Valerie Martin's novel of plague and self-sacrifice in some near-future New Orleans ambiguously reinstates them, in order to do some serious semi-feminist thinking about the possibilities for self-development offered by the cloistered life, and the self-abasement involved in the pursuit of sensually based erotic relationships. Emma and Pascal flirt with the violence of knives in their affair, but with no knife as real as that which martyrs their acquaintance, Claire.
Pascal is an attractive, idle sensualist whose only real commitment is to opposing his father's fervent Catholicism; "Non serviam" has become less a principle than an excuse for drifting. Emma is bored with a worthless job and ripe for the plucking. Their relationship progressively skirts sado-masochism in ways that she fails to take her share of responsibility for. Both become friends—and in Pascal the impulse to friendship is, always, heavily modified by lust and proselytizing—with Claire, a postulant nun ordered to test her vocation by living in the world. Claire, a potential saint, is not likeable; Martin seems to endorse her choice of absolute...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
SOURCE: "Dr. Jekyll's Housekeeper," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 21, 1990, pp. 1, 10.
[In the following laudatory review, Freeman compares Mary Reilly to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), asserting that Martin's novel should be read as a "companion piece" to the latter.]
A "fine bogy tale," frightening and vivid, was once dreamed by a husband who, crying out in his sleep, was awakened by his startled wife. Instead of feeling relieved at escaping the nightmare, he felt irritated that she had interrupted such an exciting story. Nevertheless, the dream survived, was eventually embellished by the dreamer (who also was a writer) and turned into a work of fiction.
The husband was Robert Louis Stevenson; the tale became Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a classic story with the power of myth whose very title has become synonymous with the concept of man's duality and those who lead double lives.
The Calvinist message in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Jenni Calder has pointed out in her introduction to a Penguin edition of the tale, was clear: Beware hidden sins! Avoid tampering with nature! The devil may not be as easy to recognize as we think, and the capacity for evil is within us all. Evil, in fact, is potentially more powerful than good: After all, in the end, it's the heinous Henry Hyde, sharing Jekyll's body, who...
(The entire section is 1333 words.)
SOURCE: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Observed by the Maid," in The New York Times, January 26, 1990, p. C28.
[In the following unfavorable review, Kakutani faults Mary Reilly as merely a rewrite of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).]
Written in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains both a classic in the literature of the double or doppelganger and a period piece of Victoriana, reflecting the social hypocrisies of that era. As readers will readily recall, the Stevenson book recounts the story of one Dr. Henry Jekyll, a socially prominent physician, who develops a drug that transforms him into his evil alter ego, an apelike creature named Edward Hyde. Although he also creates an antidote that will restore him to his respectable daylight existence as Dr. Jekyll, the demonic self grows stronger and stronger, eventually taking over possession of his body. Not only does the novel reflect the Victorian era's troubled reaction to Darwin's theories of evolution, but it also presages Freud's revelations about the conflicting forces of id and superego within the human psyche.
An obsession with the conflict between good and evil, reason and irrationality; a melodramatic use of horror; a preoccupation with man's bestial impulses and the natural dangers that lurk around the edges of our fragile civilization—each of these aspects...
(The entire section is 978 words.)
SOURCE: "The Woman Who Loved Dr. Jekyll," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1990, p. 7.
[An American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter, Crowley is best known for The Deep (1975) and his work in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. In the following favorable review, he briefly describes plot, theme, and characterization in Mary Reilly.]
It has been noted that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as empty of female presences as a London club. The lawyer Utterson and the young businessman Enfield who between them tell the story, Dr. Jekyll himself, even the butler Poole, are all bachelors. Hyde's sins may involve women, but unlike Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stevenson forbore to name them or to describe them except in horrid generalities.
Now [in Mary Reilly] Valerie Martin has had the terrific idea of retelling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of someone who might well have been a witness to the events, but who was invisible to the original teller—doubly invisible, for Mary Reilly is not only a woman but a servant. The idea is such a natural that as soon as the reader gets it he seems almost to have thought it up himself, and to be able to imagine in delight all that will follow. It is to Valerie Martin's credit that what does follow is seldom quite predictable....
(The entire section is 1276 words.)
SOURCE: "Solitude, Work, Humility," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4548, June 1, 1990, p. 586.
[Showalter is an American educator, editor, and critic who frequently writes on feminist issues and concerns. In the following mixed review, she discusses Martin's focus on gender differences and Victorian society in Mary Reilly.]
When Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde was first published in 1886, its original readers were struck by the maleness of the story: all the characters (except for the young thug, Hyde) are middle-aged bachelors whose sole emotional relationships are with each other. As one of Stevenson's female reviewers observed, "no woman's name occurs in the book, no romance is even suggested in it". Dramatists who have adapted Stevenson's novel for the stage or screen since Thomas Sullivan's first successful melodrama in 1887 have invariably added female characters, usually a "good" woman (a virginal débutante) and a "bad" woman (a barmaid or prostitute), to supply the missing romantic and feminine element. Several women writers, including Susan Sontag and Fay Weldon, have recently been drawn to re-imagine the story of Jekyll and Hyde, and explore the gender-subtexts of literary myths, the sexual implications of divided selves, and the ambiguities of multiple narratives. Emma Tennant's brilliant feminist version, Two Women of London (1989), made Ms Jekyll a...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: "The Housemaid's Tale," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1990, pp. 34-5.
[In the following mixed review, Graff discusses Mary Reilly's focus on Victorian society and feminist concerns.]
Whose history counts? That's the familiar feminist question Valerie Martin explores with Mary Reilly, a novel about an earnest, solitary young woman "in service" in the household of Dr. Jekyll. The novel proposes that the Edward Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale was not the infamous gentleman-scientist's most significant shadow. That honor belongs, rather, to his housemaid Mary, whose diaries record experiences with Dickensian sewers of poverty and reveal the consequences of the good Victorian gentleman's privileges and preoccupations.
The novel's grabber opening shoves us immediately into the tiny cupboard where the child Mary's drunken father brutalized her. Seeing life through Mary's eyes, we understand that, unlike Jekyll, she has no need to dabble in chemical sorcery to see how man (I use the word intentionally) might behave if freed from the rules that define civilized behavior. Mary's unwilling forays into London's grimmer streets illuminate her relief at life as a well-fed, appreciated domestic, and her resulting scheme of values.
Sweeping the floor with tea leaves, scrubbing down the flagstones with her skirts tied up,...
(The entire section is 1732 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 1-17.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in early 1992, Martin discusses her novels—particularly Mary Reilly—the major themes of her work, her reception among critics, and her aims as a writer.]
Valerie Martin's disturbing personal vision has, over the past fifteen years, continually returned to the city of her youth, testing the limits of the gothic form within a New Orleans of the imagination. The locale of her earlier novels, Set in Motion (1978), Alexandra (1979), and A Recent Martyr (1987), and her collections of short stories, Love (1977) and The Consolation of Nature (1988), New Orleans is revisited once more in a work in progress tentatively titled "The Great Divorce." Martin's most recent novel, Mary Reilly (1989), a vivid retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of Jekyll's maid, therefore provides an uncharacteristic setting for her fiction. But the detailed portrayal of a startling psychological state of mind in precise prose; the taste for macabre imagery; the masochistic fascination with pain and death; the dislocative narrative strategies that evoke the classic gothic while claiming a stylistic affinity with postmodern fiction; the calculated revision of a precursor text;...
(The entire section is 6256 words.)
SOURCE: "The Strange Case of Mary Reilly," in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 39-47.
[In the following essay. Roberts examines Mary Reilly as a psychological novel relating the process of individuation as well as the effects of child abuse on individual development.]
While works based on literary classics receive some scholarly attention and interest, they tend not to achieve lasting fame unless they present independent vision and worlds of their own. Fielding's Shamela comes right to mind, with his hilarious satire of Richardson's moral view, epistolary style, and psychological focus in Pamela, as does Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where he replaces Shakespeare's Elizabethan order and individualism in Hamlet with the modern, existential attitude toward the human condition. Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (1990) tells the story of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) from the experience of the maid who, in Stevenson's novella, stands "huddled together like a flock of sheep" with the other servants in the Jekyll household. Terrified as to what has become of their master, it is she who breaks into "hysterical whimpering" and weeps so loudly that the butler has to reprimand her in front of the others.
Readers familiar with the actual novella, or even with just the well-known myth of the doctor-turned-monster,...
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SOURCE: "A Captive Black Leopard from Three Perspectives," in The New York Times, February 18, 1994, p. C28.
[In the following review of The Great Divorce, Kakutani praises the novel's emotional depth and Martin's use of imagery, particularly that of the black leopard.]
The novelist Valerie Martin seems to have a thing for horror movies. She also seems to have a thing for stories about the bestial nature of man. Her last novel, Mary Reilly, was a retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale about a Victorian gentleman in thrall to his ape-like alter ego. Her latest novel, The Great Divorce, turns out to be a kind of improvisation on Cat People, Val Lewton's eerie 1942 movie (remade by Paul Schrader in 1982) about a woman who believes she's possessed by the soul of a panther.
The difference is that while Mary Reilly felt like a gratuitous exercise in rewriting, The Great Divorce succeeds both as an inventive reimagining of Cat People and as an utterly compelling work of fiction on its own.
Three parallel stories are recounted in The Great Divorce, stories that are tied together by the image of a black leopard, a wild creature that has been caught and imprisoned but never really subdued. We see this leopard from the point of view of three women: a modern-day...
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SOURCE: "Disintegrated Lives," in The New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1994, p. 7.
[Houston is a novelist and educator. In the following mixed review, he discusses the themes, plot, and subplots of The Great Divorce.]
In this, her first novel since her successful Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin has again proved she knows how to keep a story's velocity high and its plot tuning corners smartly. How much of the three intertwined stories in The Great Divorce a reader will happily accept, however, may depend on her or his degree of willingness to suspend disbelief. Those who accept a thing as real in fiction because the author says it is will have no quibbles with the book; crankier readers, who believe a thing ain't so until the writer makes it a convincing fictional probability, may find themselves somewhat less content.
The book's controlling metaphor is provided by the actual divorce of Ellen and Paul. Ellen is the veterinarian for the New Orleans zoo—a false Eden, a doomed ark for vanishing species, as she thinks of it. At the beginning of the novel, she is the wife of Paul, a historian researching the story of the only woman ever executed in Louisiana. Ellen has adapted to Paul's frequent affairs with remarkable equanimity (too remarkable, perhaps), fearing only that one of them will lead him to divorce her. Inevitably, that happens, and Paul and Ellen painfully try to...
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SOURCE: "An Evolutionary Jungle," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 27, 1994, pp. 2, 11.
[Prose is an American novelist, short story writer, and educator known for fiction in which she blends elements of realism and supernaturalism. In the following review, she positively assesses The Great Divorce.]
Valerie Martin's The Great Divorce is the kind of fiction that can briefly refocus and broaden the scope of what we notice about the world. Not long after finishing the novel, I found myself paying rapt attention to a TV advertisement for a collection of videotapes that seemed made up of scenes of snarling jungle creatures ripping each other to shreds. "Find out why we call them animals," droned the portentous voice-over.
The question of who we are to call them animals, of what distinguishes us from our near neighbors on the evolutionary ladder, is one that has frequently engaged Valerie Martin—in her story collection, The Consolation of Nature, and also in her novels, most recently, Mary Reilly, whose heroine was the servant of the all-too-human Dr. Jekyll and the beastly Mr. Hyde.
In her intellectually ambitious and readable new book, she employs three distinct, interlocking and thematically related narratives as a prism with which to refract and study the laser-thin bands of light and darkness that divide supposedly socialized humans from...
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SOURCE: "Finding What's Left," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 30, Summer, 1994, pp. 16, 44.
[Garner is an American critic, nonfiction writer, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of The Great Divorce.]
[Valerie Martin's The Great Divorce] has the kind of sprawling, personality-strewn narrative that you might associate with an Iris Murdoch novel. Four intertwined plots take off at once. Ellen is a veterinarian at a New Orleans zoo, and she's coping with the defection of her husband, Paul, for a younger woman. Paul, a historian, is busy researching a story from the 1800s about a famous "catwoman" who killed her cruel husband. (The catwoman's story is related in copious detail.) And Camille is an unrelated young woman who seems in some way to be a reincarnation of the catwoman; when she's abused by men—which is pretty often—she gets the urge to rip their throats out.
The Great Divorce, then, is really about divorce in two senses—the ruptures between men and women, and the divide that separates humans from animals. Martin has more luck with the former. When The Great Divorce is focused on Ellen's story, the book has a clarity and grace that are quite remarkable. Ellen is bright and deeply independent, but she's unable to get over the loss of her husband. Her story is full of small illuminations about relationships and their aftermath....
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SOURCE: "The Great Divide," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 314, August 5, 1994, p. 37.
[In the following, Gold favorably reviews The Great Divorce, describing it as "balanced, truthful, and compelling," and nothing its focus on destruction and conflict.]
The Great Divorce contains numerous references to the destruction humanity has wrought upon the natural world—polluted rivers, urban decay, habitat destruction, endangered species, the "whole aisles of poisonous cleaning products" and "solid walls of meat" in "nightmare" supermarkets, fast-food franchises, and the decimation of rain forests for hamburger culture. It is partly set in a city zoo, where two of the three main characters are employed. Ellen is a vet occupied in trying to curb a mystery virus and Camille is a keeper of the big cats, to whom she feels closer than to any human. Yet despite these and similar themes, the exploration of human/natural relationships remains much more of a sub-plot than in Jon Wynne-Tyson's books.
Primarily, Valerie Martin's is a painful novel about a crisis in human relationships for three women. Elizabeth, whose youthful vitality is sapped by a bullying, power-crazy husband; Ellen, struggling to come to terms with divorce from a philandering husband she loves; and the powerfully sad story of the abused and affection-starved Camille. Their interwoven experiences are told...
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Berman, Paul. Review of Set in Motion, by Valerie Martin. Harper's 257, No. 1538 (July 1978): 88-9.
Discusses characterization in Set in Motion.
Dunn, Katherine, "Cat-Scratch Fever." Book World—The Washington Post (13 March 1994): 6.
Review of The Great Divorce. Comparing the novel to Mary Reilly, Dunn notes Martin's focus on "humanity's dark side."
Gates, David. "What the Maid Saw." Newsweek CXV, No. 11 (12 March 1990): 90.
Gives a brief synopsis of Mary Reilly, favorably commenting on the novel's plot and theme.
Goldstein, Richard. "Visitation Rites." VLS (October 1987): 7-9.
Analyzes Martin's thematic focus on epidemics and obsession in A Recent Martyr in light of the AIDS crisis.
Jefferson, Margo. "Helpless Helene." Newsweek XCII, No. 4 (24 July 1978): 82.
Mixed assessment of Set in Motion.
Kafarowski, Joanna. "Fidelity and Innocence Defiled." Belles Lettres 7, No. 1 (Fall 1991): 30-1.
Compares the servant character of Mary...
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