Valerie Martin Essay - Critical Essays

Martin, Valerie


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Anatole Broyard (review date 23 June 1978)

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....

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Daphne Merkin (review date 31 July 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

John Irwin Fischer (review date Autumn 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Anatole Broyard (review date 21 July 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

Francine du Plessix Gray (review date 5 August 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Sandra Salmans (review date 8 February 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Carolyn Banks (review date 7 June 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 13 January 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1511 words.)

Charles Johnson (review date 31 January 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Susan Slocum Hinerfeld (review date 7 February 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Valerie Martin (essay date 7 February 1988)

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.)

John Irwin Fischer (review date Spring 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 2384 words.)

Gregory L. Morris (review date September 1988)

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:...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 28 October 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Judith Freeman (review date 21 January 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1333 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 26 January 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 978 words.)

John Crowley (review date 4 February 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

Elaine Showalter (review date 1 June 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

E. J. Graff (review date July 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)

Valerie Martin with Rob Smith (interview date 20 January 1992)

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,...

(The entire section is 6256 words.)

Bette B. Roberts (review date Spring 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 3837 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 18 February 1994)

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,...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Robert Houston (review date 13 March 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1459 words.)

Francine Prose (review date 27 March 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Dwight Garner (review date Summer 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Mark Gold (review date 5 August 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 310 words.)