Picks and Pans Review: Mary Reilly

updated 03/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Valerie Martin

Though it has intrigued readers (and actors) for more than a century, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in many ways an unfinished story, a tease. There are glimpses of Hyde, but no satisfying description—indeed, characters consistently point out how difficult he is to describe—and Dr. Jekyll appears merely in reflection, through his notes and the memories of such stilted observers as his lawyer, Mr. Utterson.

In Mary Reilly, a woman clumsily but powerfully enters Jekyll's secret sphere and offers a new perspective. The conceit of Valerie Martin's novel is that Reilly escapes from an abusive father into a life of service. When we meet her, she is a housemaid in the scientist's elegantly furnished town house, one of six servants in Jekyll's employ. What unfolds in this house we see through Mary's eyes, as recorded in her (curiously well-written) journals.

Reilly's is a baleful voice, but her instincts are sharp, and her battered background makes her the first to sense the awful undercurrents that arrive with her master's new "assistant," Hyde. What trips her up is the crush she develops on Jekyll, a gentleman prone to sad-eyed sojourns by the fire. When his dead body is discovered, it is with Mary's arms wrapped futilely around him.

More haunting than harrowing, Mary Reilly provides an often-compelling glimpse of Victorian England, its sexual antagonisms and pitiless disregard for lower-class plights. But solve the conundrum of Jekyll and Hyde? Never! (Doubleday, $18.95)

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