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Martin, Valerie

MARTIN, Valerie

Born 14 March 1948, Sedalia, Missouri

Daughter of John R. and Valerie Fleischer Metcalf; married Robert M. Martin, 1970 (divorced); James Watson, 1986 (divorced); children: Adrienne

Though born in Missouri, Valerie Martin was raised and educated in New Orleans. Having earned a B.A. from the University of New Orleans in 1970, she enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Massachusetts (M.F.A., 1974). Subsequently, she held a series of teaching posts at New Mexico State University, the University of New Orleans, the University of Alabama, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The title of her first book, a little-known but powerful collection of stories called Love (1977, reissued 1999), announced Martin's one consuming subject. Over the course of her career, she has examined its complexities in intense and widely admired novels and short stories. Her first novel, Set in Motion (1978), recounts the uneasy progress of Helene Thatcher's passionate relationships with the husbands of her two best friends and the gentle but passionless friendship with a drug addict to whom she always returns. Winning praise from Walker Percy and others, Set in Motion was quickly followed by Alexandra (1979).

Less well received, Alexandra relates the melancholy tale of Claude Ledet's abandonment of his life in New Orleans to follow a beautiful woman into the bayou country, where they attend to the needs of her wealthy and pregnant friend. Martin takes the bold step of narrating this novel about memory and mystery from the man's point of view. Such experimentation with narrative perspective culminates in A Recent Martyr (1987), an intense meditation on the relationship of the profane to the sacred. Widely praised, the novel tells the story of a highly charged erotic affair in a New Orleans beset by plague. The two lovers, yielding to more and more dangerous sexual play, engage in a struggle over a saintly young novice on leave from her convent. In a display of technical virtuosity, the point of view in A Recent Martyr shifts throughout the novel from first to third person as the scene shifts from the woman to the man.

Similarly concerned with structural experimentation and love on the edge of doom, Martin's second collection of short fiction, The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories (1988), juxtaposes lovers in crisis with animals of both domestic and fantastic species. The obviously gothic character of this volume finds even clearer expression in Mary Reilly (1990, 1991, 1995). Widely hailed as a major achievement, Martin's fourth novel retells Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's devoted maid. Though certainly related to Martin's earlier work, the book strikes out in many new directions. A historical novel set in London, Mary Reilly abandons the triangle of two women and one man that forms a basic unit of conflict in some of the earlier novels. Additionally, the explicit sexuality of her other fiction yields to an implied (though menacing) eroticism here. Even the narrative voice is unlike any other in Martin's work.

Reviewing The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories, Michiko Kakutani summarized the characteristics of Martin's work: "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." Though all this continues to be true of Mary Reilly, the novel also promises increasingly complex and subtle strategies for the expression of these qualities.

Other Works:

The Great Divorce (1996). Italian Fever: A Novel (1999).

Bibliography:

McNally, J., ed., High Infidelity: 25 Great Short Stories About Adultery by Some of Our Best Contemporary Authors (1997). Meyer, K. Z., "Feminist Doubles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Rewriting a Classic" (thesis 1994). Plate, L., "Visions and Re-Visions: Female Authorship and the Act of Rewriting" (dissertation 1995). Southern Review (Spring 1988).

Other references:

Book World (March 1994). Boston (July 1990). Contemporary Literature (Spring 1993, 1996). New Orleans Review (Spring 1995). NYT (23 June 1978, 21 July 1979, 5 Aug. 1979, 7 June 1987, 13 Jan. 1988, 31 Jan. 1988, 26 Jan. 1990, 4 Feb. 1990).

—JOHN BIGUENET

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