I read this so long after it first came out that it was hard to get the image of Julia Roberts and John Malkovich from the film out of my head (two actors I loathe). But it is a great tribute to Valerie Martin's crisp writing that you soon forget it was ever a film, much less who starred in it, and are caught up in the quietly creepy spell she weaves as a housemaid in Victorian London slowly discovers the truth about her Master, Mr. Jekyll, and his strange, brutish assistant, Mr. Hyde. Martin wisely allows the story to unfold slowly, and she brilliantly ups the ante with the threat of impending violence and its ultimate tragic ending. Her portrait of Mary Reilly, an abused housemaid who finds solace and kinship in her strange master, is poignant, richly detailed, and gorgeously written. Forget the film, read this remarkable book and treat yourself to first-rate story telling and writing.
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I have been trying to learn about the system of using servants in 19th & 20th c. England, and somewhere I read that this book gave a good picture of what it was like. Alas, I should have just gotten it from the library. The idea behind this story is a good one, but unfortunately what we got amounts to a dressed-up soap opera, sloppily written, pointless and uninvolving. I found myself counting the pages to the end, and I learned absolutely nothing new or useful about how servants worked. It's rare that I buy a book I decide not to keep, but this is one.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
A Brilliant, Enduring Novel of Stunning ImaginationOct. 18 2004
Patricia P. Taylor
- Published on Amazon.com
Valerie Martin may be one of the two or three most accomplished writers of fiction of our time. She may also be the most misunderstood. It's rare that I take exception to other reviews here, but the most recent ones posted about Mary Reilly are so sadly misinformed, they need addressing. To begin with, to the reader who wasn't sure, the book is a NOVEL, not a history. It is a fictional take on another NOVEL, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. To the reader who was confused by the movie: the movie was so egregiously awful I tell everyone never to see it. It helps to have read Stevenson's novel, but not necessary at all. Mary Reilly was out of print for some years, a publishing sin, and it's right and proper it's been returned to the public. The novel is, simply put, perfectly constructed. Read it once for the powerful story of a doomed domestic and her equally doomed employer, then read it again for the poetic spareness and emotional wallop of the language. The opening chapter, a letter Mary writes to Dr. Jekyll about her subjection to one of the most catastrophic cases of child abuse you could imagine, sets up the framework for the novel. Mary's father nearly ruined her because she broke a cup. Much later, Mr. Hyde nearly rapes her--as he's breaking a cup. The duality of the images throughout the book mirrors the duality of Dr. Jekyll's spirit, as well as dualities in life and philosophy multiplying in the Jekyll household. The gardening episodes which so bored one reader are a subtle symbol of the creation theme: so much work to create, so little time to destroy. They also mark the difference between Mary and Jekyll. She creates good, he creates evil, although unwittingly.
The plot follows two lines: the unuttered romantic love between Mary and Dr. Jekyll, and the comparison of Hyde, not to Jekyll, but to Mary's father. It's a brilliant device, and works itself out in ever more elegant ways. Mary, the rare Victorian domestic who is literate, seeks in Dr. Jekyll the emotional response of a father and a lover. Dr. Jekyll, in turn, seeks from Mary the emotional and intellectual response of a lover/wife and a best friend. You want it to work for them. Oh, you do so desperately want it to. But you know the ending for Dr. Jekyll, and it remains for Valerie Martin's incredible imagination to weave in Mary's hopeless end according to Stevenson's original plot. I taught this book in the classroom for years, and of the hundreds of students who read it, NOT ONE ever disliked it.
Approach Mary Reilly as an unfolding map of literary treasure and you will find more gold than most works of fiction can even hint it. Five stars aren't enough for a horror novel which is a romantic novel which is a suspense novel which is an historical novel. Mary Reilly is unlike anything else you will ever read. I thank Valerie Martin every time I pick up this book for giving us so great a literary gift.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
"Mary Reilly" is a very smooth and stylish read. It goes down easily. Martin creates a sustained mood of low level suspense.
I cared enough about this book to have been disappointed by the ending, though.
I'd still recommend the book, for its powerful and appealing heroine, and its stylish evocation of Victorian-Gothic Romance -- three contrasting historical periods, but one fun literary genre.
Warning! This review will hint at the book's ending, but will not spell it out. If you are familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide," on which "Mary Reilly" is based, you won't learn anything new.
"Mary Reilly" has one of the most riveting openings I've ever read, if not the most. It's a description of an episode of child abuse.
For the first time in my life, I was hooked from the very first line of a novel, and could not put the book down. I had to know what happened to that child -- even though, of course, since the child is the Mary Reilly of the title, I knew that she would survive.
Martin doesn't plunge to the depths of child abuse, but she writes of the surface with such power that I had the feeling that I was in the hands of a master.
Martin deeply impressed me with the terror and vulnerability of the abused child, as well as that child's resilience and drive to survive, and the twisted sadism of the abuser. All in a very few brief words and pages.
But that's just the opening pages.
The bulk of the book is made up of Reilly's crush on her "Master," Dr. Henry Jekyll. Reilly's history of having been an abused child is mentioned as part of the reason why Mary has this crush; like her master, Mary has a horrible, hidden wound that drives her apart from the rest of society.
It's the classic Gothic set-up, enshrined in literature at least since "Jane Eyre." Mary Reilly is a bright, principled, and spunky girl consigned by fate to a lowly life, that of serving her "Master."
Her Master, of course, is intense, mysterious and unconventionly attractive.
Like his spunky young servant, he does not fit into society's pre-ordained classifications.
And he pays an inordinate amount of attention to his servant.
He doesn't make clumsy or lewd passes at her; rather, he watches her, converses with her, confides in her, conspires with her in a way that breaks social expectations, and expresses frank admiration of her intelligence and spirit.
As is traditional in Gothic romance literature, Mary and Master's flirtation consists mostly of muted and aborted conversations. They have to be aborted -- for this upper class doctor and his serving girl to converse is against the rules.
Again, if you've read "Jane Eyre" or the thousand other Gothic romances modeled on it, you've read all this before.
If you enjoyed it in "Jane Eyre," you'll enjoy it here. This reader certainly did.
I did yearn for, and did not encounter, something more, though. This book is more of a novella than a novel; Mary has little to no life outside of her truncated encounters with her Master, and the novel has little to no other plot. This singleness of narrative strand makes the book a quick and easy read, but also something of a lighter read than I wanted it to be.
There is one extra feature here that Martin could have done more with, but she did not. The taboo intimacies between Jekyll and Mary reek of the power abuse of an older, established man of a young and vulnerable woman.
Dr. Jekyll is obviously arousing expectations in Mary that he will never satisfy. He uses her, on her day off, to do some truly vile tasks for him.
How does Martin feel about this? How does the novel want the reader to feel?
Most importantly -- Martin did such a fine job of depicting a believably perceptive, articulate, courageous, spunky, integral creature in Reilly that I never really believed the scenes in which Reilly lets Master walk all over her. I wanted Reilly to at least acknowledge that she knew that she was being used by someone who would probably only hurt her.
Too, Mary was as fetching to me as she was to Dr. Jekyll, and, so, I wanted to spend more time with her, and observe her inhabiting a richer world.
At a certain part in the novel it began to drag, for me; I felt that I'd gotten the point of all these hushed, rushed conversations between Mary, usually on her knees, with her skirts tied up, scrubbing something, and her Master, standing Masterfully over her, observing her carefully, complimenting her, finding some excuse to touch her hand, etc.
And I wanted to something else to happen.
When something else did happen, I was disappointed by that something else. Without revealing the ending, I can say that Mary behaved in a way that went against her every act so far, and that, I felt, betrayed both the spirit of the book, and of the genre.
Part of the point of "Jane Eyre," a book that this book bases itself on as much as on "Dr. Jekyll," is that Jane had so much self-respect that she was not, ultimately, willing to destroy herself to have the man she loved.
Again, I'd still recommend this book. I liked 99% of it so much that I've already "rescued" it by inventing an alternative ending to it, one in which the final Mary we see is more like the Mary of the rest of the book.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is a very deep, very well-written bookMarch 8 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a book about addiction and the binding power of abusive relationships. Martin's writing is gothic and atmospheric, but it would be a shame to read this book as a thriller, a romance, or a sermon on the evils of the class system in Victorian England and miss out on the main point of the book. What Martin is saying about substance abuse is that the addiction is not to getting high, or to enjoying the substance itself, the addiction is to letting out the inner beast. Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde are both present in all abusers, who use substances to let out the evil inside their souls (not to get rid of it, to enjoy using it). Mary's father used alcohol to let out his demons, and Dr. Jeckyl used his experiments. Women like Mary are bound to them by loyalty, family ties, and love. This is a very deep book and will make you think!
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Interesting idea with disappointing results.Sept. 30 1998
- Published on Amazon.com
Certain aspects of this book are really impressive. The first-person narrator, Mary Reilly, tells the story in an understated, controlled tone that lends believability to the fantastic events. Perhaps even more important, as a character she is fascinating: a woman with an intensely disturbing past and a humble present, she is damaged yet likable, and full of odd but understandable tendencies, like her desire to record her negative feelings for her abusive father in a journal, so she won't forget one day in old age. And it's an intriguing process she undergoes as she simultaneously comes to terms with her hard feelings and begins to ignore the Victorian constraints of the era and express her affection (in subtle ways, of course) for her "master." No alter-ego for Mary; she's ultimately able to face her darkness and apparently is better off for it. However, in my opinion, this book can't decide whether it wants to be a thriller about a mad scientist or a story about a woman's psychosexual odyssey and, ultimately, it fails at both. Mary's character grows but her story tapers off in a skimpy conclusion. As for Dr. Jeckyll, you never really find out what he was up to in that laboratory. After having read, in my paperback copy, dozens of excerpts from gushing newspaper reviews, I was disappointed.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Great Idea, Wonderful ExecutionMarch 22 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
To really appreciate MARY REILLY, I'd recommend first reading the original THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson (a quick read) and then dive into MARY REILLY. You will really appreciate the way Ms. Martin weaves her story through the original.
(I was excited when the film version was released. John Malkovich would make an awesome Jekyll and Hyde. But the star was Julia Roberts and the original story was completely destroyed. DO NOT go by the film. Horrible.)