Martin, Valerie 1948-
Martin, Valerie 1948-
Born March 14, 1948, in Sedalia, MO; daughter of John Roger (a sea captain) and Valerie Metcalf; married Robert M. Martin (an artist), December 10, 1970 (divorced, 1984); children: Adrienne. Education: University of New Orleans, B.A., 1970; University of Massachusetts, M.F.A., 1974.
Agent—Nikki Smith, Smith-Skolnik Literary Management, 303 Walnut St., Westfield, NJ 07090.
Writer, educator. University of New Mexico, Las Cruces, visiting lecturer in creative writing, 1978-79; University of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA, assistant professor of English, 1980-84, 1985-86; University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, writer in residence, 1984-85; Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, lecturer in creative writing, 1986-89; University of Massachusetts—Amherst, associate professor of English, 1989-97; Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, visiting writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, visiting writer, 1999, 2002.
Authors Guild, PEN.
Louisiana Division of the Arts grant, 1982; grant, National Endowment for the Arts, 1990; Kafica Prize, University of Rochester, 1991; Orange Prize for Fiction, 2003, for Property.
Love: Short Stories, Lynx House Press (Amherst, MA), 1977, reprinted by Lost Horse Press, 1999.
Set in Motion (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
Alexandra (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.
A Recent Martyr (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1987.
The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, Vintage (New York, NY), 1988.
Mary Reilly (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
The Great Divorce (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
Italian Fever (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Property (novel), Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
The Unfinished Novel: And Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries (New York, NY), 2006.
Trespass (novel), Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2007.
Valerie Martin writes stories that "recall those by Edgar Allan Poe," to quote New York Times columnist Michiko Kakutani. "It's not just the gothic subject matter or the tightly designed plots," Kakutani added. "It's [Martin's] ability to take that material and communicate extreme states of mind—to make it yield startling psychological truths that resonate in the mind." In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Susan Slocum Hinerfeld described Martin's work as "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." Martin's novels include A Recent Martyr, The Great Divorce, Mary Reilly—a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde told from the point of view of the doctor's housemaid, the Orange Prize-winning novel Property, and Trespass. Her collection The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories has also received critical attention, as did the 2006 collection, The Unfinished Novel: And Other Stories.
A Recent Martyr, set in a plague-ridden New Orleans of the near future, depicts the sadomasochistic love affair between Emma Miller, who is unhappily married, and Pascal Toussaint. When Toussaint becomes obsessed with Claire, a postulant nun who works with Emma caring for the dying within the quarantine zone, their tangled relationship plays itself out amid the misery and fear of the suffering city. Geoffrey Stokes, writing in the Village Voice, claimed that Martin "can flat-out write…. In prose of liquid clarity, [she] applies pressure to her characters—a touch here, a prod there, a contusive thump in an out-of-the-way alley—and lets it flow, equally and undiminished, through every corner of their souls, every page of her remarkable book." Carolyn Banks, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found "much in A Recent Martyr that, in another author's hands, might be overwrought…. We are told these things, however, in Emma's voice, always steady, clear, elegant and direct."
A woman narrates Mary Reilly as well. Mary writes in her journal of the increasingly strange state of affairs around the Jekyll home, especially after the doctor supposedly hires an assistant named Edward Hyde. Newsweek contributor David Gates praised the author's memorable characters, especially "the utterly convincing Mary, with a housemaid's eye (rooms, to her, are furnished with things to be cleaned), a servant girl's rigorous sense of place—and a sufferer's hard-won dignity." In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Judith Freeman also reflected on Mary as "a character of great kindness and goodness. Her perceptions of human nature ring with simple truth."
Abused by a drunken father, Mary tries hard to please the kindly Dr. Jekyll. "When Master is gay and kind to me," she writes in the journal she keeps, "then all the sadness I feel lifts as suddenly as a bird…. When he tells me he trusts me and shows he trusts me more than anyone else in this house, my heart leaps." According to Elizabeth Castor in the Washington Post, the story is "part psychological novel, part social history, part eerie horror tale … dark and moving and powerful—a fitting complement to the 19th-century original." Ellen Pall, writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, considered the novel "curiously lacking in … resonance for our time; despite the politically intriguing female-underclass point of view it adopts, it seems finally not to be about very much." But John Crowley offered a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. Crowley stated that Mary Reilly "is an achievement—creativity skating exhilaratingly on thin ice." He concluded: "I think Valerie Martin's treatment of [Robert Louis Stevenson's] story actually succeeds in ways Stevenson himself could not have brought off and might well have admired." Mary Reilly was adapted for film by TriStar in 1996.
In the novel The Great Divorce, Martin weaves three stories concerning the relationship between humans and animals. One story tells of Ellen Clayton, a veterinarian for a New Orleans zoo, whose husband is leaving her for a younger woman at the same time the zoo is suffering from a viral outbreak. The second story concerns Camille, the zoo's keeper of big cats, who imagines herself as a leopard to escape from her intolerable private life. The third story tells of Elizabeth Schlaeger, nicknamed the catwoman of St. Francisville, a nineteenth-century woman who savagely murdered her husband. "In all three of its tales," wrote Emily Mitchell in Time, "The Great Divorce evocatively humanizes the wild nature that is just beneath the surface of us all." Francine Prose, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called The Great Divorce an "intellectually ambitious and readable new book" that "provides the immediate pleasures of a literary page-turner, but also has a more lasting influence."
Animals also play a prominent role in the stories gathered together in The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories. In this ironically-titled collection, Martin spins tales of unease. "One comes away from these stories," explained Marianne Gingher in the Washington Post Book World, "feeling ambivalent about nature's role in human solace. Innocent lovers drown, a sea creature murderously castrates a fisherman, a hungry cat absurdly traps its face in a salmon can and dies, an enormous rat seizes a man by the throat." As Kakutani noted, Martin displays "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." Although Hinerfeld claimed that "what [the book] lacks—entirely—is humor," Gingher found The Consolation of Nature to be "a curious, spooky, distinctive book."
Martin's Italian Fever is likewise animated by Gothic set pieces. The novel's young American heroine, Lucy Stark, travels to Italy to tidy up her employer's affairs and to search for a manuscript he was working on when he died under mysterious circumstances. "Lucy is a typical Martin heroine—alert but passive, capable and interested but also reflective and full of doubts," observed Craig Seligman in the New York Times Book Review. Upon her arrival, Lucy tries to piece together what might have happened to her employer, searching the pages of his manuscript for clues—and experiencing both supernatural phenomena and a passionate affair with her Italian chauffeur. A Publishers Weekly correspondent declared: "With a few ghosts, several acts of love and numerous jibes at self-indulgent writers … the sophisticated romantic adventure is rendered with stylish flair. Martin controls the narrative momentum smoothly and recounts her tale with occasional wryness and engaging enthusiasm."
Seligman and other reviewers have admired Italian Fever's nod to authors E.M. Forster and Henry James, both of whom wrote novels about young foreigners who become passionately enchanted during their trips to Italy. Seligman maintained, however, that Martin's Lucy "is neither as fresh nor as virginal as the young heroines Forster and James send to Italy for their confrontations with destiny—and, anyway, Martin doesn't believe in sudden, overwhelming alterations of consciousness or character." Seligman praised Italian Fever as the work of "a virtuoso," adding: "Valerie Martin's sureness of phrasing is one of the great pleasures of her recent fiction. In the two decades that she has been publishing novels and stories, her cool, remote voice has mellowed, and her competence has kindled into brilliance."
With her 2001 work, Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, Martin turns her hand to fictionalized biography. Anna M. Donnelly, writing in Library Journal, described the book as "a series of 31 frescolike word panels on the radical popular stigmatist and founder of the Franciscan Order." Indeed, Martin was inspired to write the life of St. Francis by the series of frescoes of his life created by various great Renaissance painters. According to Paul Lachance, writing in Church History, "[Martin's] procedure is to illuminate her story by focusing on some of the major scenes or themes from Francis's life, but reversing the sequence by beginning with his death and ending with his conversion." School Library Journal reviewer Lillian McAnally, thought that with Salvation "Martin has opened a window into the medieval world to present us with a vivid portrait of St. Francis." Similar praise came from Christian Century contributor Ellen L. Babinsky, who called the same work a "great narrative." Likewise, a Publishers Weekly critic thought "Martin's scenes from Francis's life are exquisite and imaginative," and Booklist writer Margaret Flanagan noted that the author "portrays St. Francis as a man of his time and culture."
Returning to the novel in her 2003 Property, Martin tells a tale of sexual rivalry and a domestic power struggle set on an antebellum Louisiana plantation. Narrated by Manon Gaudet, the novel depicts a triangle between the infantile Manon, her cruel and dull husband, and the light-skinned female slave, Sarah, who has borne Manon's husband an illegitimate child. A Kirkus Reviews critic had high praise for this award-winning novel, terming it a "nimble, enlightening and horrific story about the morally corrosive effects of slavery and one childish soul, locked in a cycle of permanent bitterness." Writing in Salon.com, Laura Miller called Property a "ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls ‘lies without end’: race in America." A Publishers Weekly contributor also found the work "compelling," while Library Journal writer Andrea Kempf thought the novel "will resonate with readers long after it is finished."
Martin's 2006 short story collection, The Unfinished Novel, gathers several tales dealing with artists' attempts to master their craft and gain public renown. The title story, for example, features a novelist, while "Blue Period" has a painter as the protagonist and "The Bower" has a college drama coach at its center. Troy Patterson, writing in Entertainment Weekly, praised Martin's "memorable depictions of artists' desires, jealousies, and ostrich-egg egos," while a Publishers Weekly contributor called the work a "suspenseful and piercingly acute collection," as well as "compulsively readable and impressively perceptive."
Martin once told CA: "For nearly thirty years, in life and literature, I have attempted to reconcile the contradictory attractions of a full blown, lyrical, pantheistic Romanticism with a terse, godless, and chilly Realism. My compass spins perpetually between these two poles, though lately Romanticism seems to exerting a powerful magnetism."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Martin, Valerie, Mary Reilly, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
Belles Lettres, July, 1988, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 13; fall, 1991, review of Mary Reilly, p. 30.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 787; March 15, 1999, review of Italian Fever, p. 1260; March 1, 2001, Margaret Flanagan, review of Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, p. 1210; January 1, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Property, p. 848.
Boston Magazine, July, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 50.
Christian Century, August 1, 2001, Ellen L. Babinsky, review of Salvation, p. 33.
Church History, December, 2003, Paul Lachance, review of Salvation, p. 879.
Cosmopolitan, February, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 36.
Detroit Free Press, January 21, 1990, review of Mary Reilly.
Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 53; August 6, 1999, review of Italian Fever, p. 58; May 12, 2006, Troy Patterson, review of The Unfinished Novel: And Other Stories, p. 85.
Glamour, February, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 132.
Harper's Bazaar, March, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 168.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of Property, p. 1647.
Library Journal, February 1, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 113; May 1, 1999, review of Italian Fever, p. 111; February 15, 2001, Anna M. Donnelly, review of Salvation, p. 173; February 1, 2003, Andrea Kempf, review of Property, p. 118.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 12, 1987, review of A Recent Martyr, p. 4; February 7, 1988, Susan Slocum Hinerfeld, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 7; January 21, 1990, Judith Freeman, review of Mary Reilly, pp. 1, 10; March 27, 1994, Francine Prose, review of The Great Divorce, p. 2.
Mademoiselle, August, 1995, review of The Great Divorce, p. 109.
MS Best Books, June 4, 2003, "Winner of Orange Prize for Fiction Announced."
New Orleans Magazine, June, 1988, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 22.
New Statesman and Society, August 5, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 37.
Newsweek, July 24, 1978, review of Set in Motion, p. 82; March 12, 1990, David Gates, review of Mary Reilly, p. 90.
New Yorker, July 30, 1979, review of Alexandra, pp. 88-89.
New York Times, June 23, 1978, review of Set in Motion, p. C23; June 21, 1979, review of Alexandra; January 13, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories; January 26, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. B4; February 18, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. C28.
New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1979, review of Alexandra, p. 10; June 7, 1987, Carolyn Banks, review of A Recent Martyr; January 31, 1988, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 22; February 4, 1990, John Crowley, review of Mary Reilly, p. 7; March 13, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 7; August 1, 1999, Craig Seligman, review of Italian Fever, p. 9; March 2, 2003, review of Property, p. 26.
People, March 5, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 28; May 2, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, April 10, 1978, review of Set in Motion, p. 68; May 21, 1979, review of Alexandra, pp. 56-57; February 9, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, pp. 41-42; January 3, 1994, review of The Great Divorce, p. 70; May 10, 1999, review of Italian Fever, p. 54; February 26, 2001, review of Salvation, p. 81; January 13, 2002, review of Property, p. 38; March 13, 2006, review of The Unfinished Novel, p. 38.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2003, Alan Cheuse, review of Property.
School Library Journal, August, 2002, Lillian McAnally, review of Salvation, p. S50.
Sewanee Review, October, 1978, review of Set in Motion, p. 609.
Southern Review, autumn, 1978, review of Set in Motion, p. 849; spring, 1988, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 445.
Time, February 19, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 84; March 28, 1994, Emily Mitchell, review of The Great Divorce, p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 1988, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories; June 1, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 586.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 4, 1990, Ellen Pall, review of Mary Reilly, p. 5.
Village Voice, June 30, 1987, Geoffrey Stokes, review of A Recent Martyr, p. 55.
Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1987, review of A Recent Martyr.
Washington Post, January 17, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. D2; March 4, 1990, Elizabeth Castor, review of Mary Reilly.
Washington Post Book World, March 6, 1988, Marianne Gingher, review of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories, p. 9.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1990, review of Mary Reilly, p. 34.
BookPage.com,http://www.bookpage.com/ (January 29, 2007), Becky Ohlsen, review of Property.
Guardian Unlimited,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (June 4, 2003), John Ezard, "Turn-Up for the Books as Surprise Winner Takes Orange Fiction Prize"; (June 7, 2003), Valerie Martin, "Masters and Servants."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (February 13, 2003), Laura Miller, review of Property.