"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.