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From debut author Elizabeth Wetmore comes VALENTINE, a fierce and unflinching chronicle of a night of unspeakable violence and its effect on the women of Odessa, Texas, in 1976, as this small town stands on the brink of the next great oil boom.

The story begins with Gloria Ramirez, a 14-year-old who finds herself awake in the desert, carefully watching the unconscious body of the young man who has just raped and beaten her on Valentine’s Day. Wetmore does not hold back in recounting the brutalities faced by Gloria, but goes a step further by describing the intense emotional pain she feels. She gets “the body” --- her own, but she can no longer claim ownership of it --- up and moving and walks three miles, barefoot, to the nearest home, praying for safety. If she doesn’t, she knows the man will kill her.

"Endlessly haunting and unforgettable, VALENTINE is an illuminating celebration of the strengths and vulnerabilities of women, and a reminder that the truth will keep us alive, even when there are systems in place to take it from us."

From there, we meet Mary Rose Whitehead, a young mother who cares for her daughter and dreams of her unborn child while her husband works in the fields. When she hears a knock at the door as she and her daughter listen to a church sermon on the radio, nothing can prepare her for the battered, frightened girl she finds on the porch. Torn between wanting to protect any young girl and wanting to protect only her own, Mary Rose deliberates for just a second too long before letting a crying, thirsty Gloria into her home. Her hesitance draws the eye of Dale Strickland, who has just arrived in his pickup truck looking for his “girlfriend,” a feisty Mexican --- because you know how those gals are --- who he claims stormed off after a quarrel. But Mary Rose knows the truth, and when she tells her daughter to call the sheriff and hand her a gun, she knows exactly the effect it will have on her life.

Jumping ahead a bit, we learn that Strickland has been arrested for his crime. The trial has not yet begun, but Gloria has been tried in the court of public opinion. Though they are all churchgoing husbands, fathers and sons, the men --- and even some of the women --- of Odessa have labeled her guilty. Guilty of going off with a strange man, guilty of having brown skin, and, perhaps most of all, guilty of being a woman. But it is not only Gloria who is being disparaged by her fellow citizens; Mary Rose is considered a race traitor for siding with Gloria, and even her own husband has turned his back on her for defending the little Mexican girl. The townsfolk are merciless, throwing around bigoted and prejudiced statements and sentences with little care for the fact that Gloria is just a girl --- a girl who very easily could be one of their own. And, as Wetmore shows us, is far more like the men’s own mothers, sisters, wives and daughters than any of them will ever realize.

From this point on, Wetmore alternates between the perspectives of several women in town --- from Gloria and Mary Rose to crotchety old Corrine Shepard and the rest of her female neighbors on Larkspur Lane, and even Debra Ann Pierce, a young girl who has been left motherless and traverses Odessa searching for meaning. Through their eyes, we see the ways that the promise of oil (black gold) has drawn countless men to the small town, and how the ripples of violence and cruelty caused by them have forever made their mark upon the land and its women.

Corrine and Debra Ann drive much of the narrative with their heartbreaking stories that are fueled not by male violence or disregard, but rather by the unbearable pressures put upon women. Even though they have been largely untouched by the terror of Odessa, Wetmore reminds us that violence can come in many forms, including unrealistic expectations, poverty and a lack of opportunities. It is Mary Rose with whom we spend the most time, but with her serving as a link between Gloria and the other women, we come to know the backstory and reflections of each and every female inhabitant of Odessa, and we learn one thing: the men cannot be trusted.

The town of Odessa acts as a character in itself, with Wetmore so successfully transporting her readers to the desert and oil fields that I swore I could smell the dirt and sulfur in the air as I read. By weaving together so many histories and laying them against a deeply compelling contemporary story and legal trial, she provides the entire history and personality of the town in just over 300 pages. Let us not forget: Odessa is a scary place, as full of potential for success (or at least black gold) as it is opportunity for violence. Although it is painful and harsh, Wetmore never once allows us to forget that the two are intricately and indivisibly tied to one another. She is a careful writer who wastes no words, but still she manages to produce some of the most cohesive and shocking descriptions that I have ever read.

VALENTINE is a slow-burn novel that is nearly entirely character-driven. Wetmore is skilled at conveying each woman’s backstory and finding the sometimes surprising links between them all. Though the book is predominantly about violence and male privilege, she also explores the deepest feelings and fears of womanhood: from finding one’s identity in a career, to wanting more sex, and even the conflicting emotions of motherhood. What is remarkable is not that she has focused solely on the women of Odessa, but that she finds --- so easily, it seems --- the invisible threads that unite them as victims, warriors and victors.

Endlessly haunting and unforgettable, VALENTINE is an illuminating celebration of the strengths and vulnerabilities of women, and a reminder that the truth will keep us alive, even when there are systems in place to take it from us.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 24, 2020

by Elizabeth Wetmore

  • Publication Date: March 31, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062913263
  • ISBN-13: 9780062913265