Picks and Pans Review: The Great Divorce

UPDATED 05/02/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/02/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Valerie Martin

Sexy, absorbing and insightful, Valerie Martin's latest novel (following her acclaimed Mary Reilly), explores the struggle for power between men and women, nature and civilization, in three mesmerizing tales of very different women whose lives are unraveling.

Ellen Clayton, the vet at the New Orleans Zoo, tries to hold on after her faithless husband of 20 years leaves her for his young secretary. Camille, lonely and depressed, looks after the big cats at the zoo and fantasizes about relationships with sexually and emotionally abusive men.

Juxtaposed with the contemporary stories of Ellen and Camille is the gothic tale of Elisabeth Boyer, the Catwoman, a Creole beauty in antebellum New Orleans who was hanged for murdering her sadistic husband.

Martin fuses these stories of betrayal into a compelling narrative about human nature, passion and animal instinct, evoking the New Orleans of both centuries with equal clarity. Imaginative and profound, The Great Divorce is a great read that tackles important issues without sentimentality. Despite the inherent sadness and futility that Ellen, Camille and Elisabeth confront, the novel offers a note of hope. "I think," Ellen tells her daughter when a young jaguar at the zoo survives an illness, "this time we win." (Doubleday, $22.50)

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