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An astonishing debut novel that explores the lingering effects of a brutal crime on the women of one small Texas oil town in the 1970s.
Mercy is hard in a place like this . . .
It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.
In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.
Valentine is a haunting exploration of the intersections of violence and race, class and region in a story that plumbs the depths of darkness and fear, yet offers a window into beauty and hope. Told through the alternating points of view of indelible characters who burrow deep in the reader’s heart, this fierce, unflinching, and surprisingly tender novel illuminates women’s strength and vulnerability, and reminds us that it is the stories we tell ourselves that keep us alive.
I am a Book of the Month subscriber, and when Valentine came in the mail, I honestly didn’t remember why I found this book appealing. I have started to shy away from books were the main premise revolves around violence toward women, especially underage women. I’m not some sort of crusader about this because art is bigger than my opinions, but I also have been trying to pick novels that have a different plot than the use and abuse of women. (Having said that, my last review was Carrie, which is pretty much a classic under-aged girl getting abused story. ) I look at the trend of novels that are about kidnapped, murdered, and raped women, and I think we could use a little more variety, or maybe I could use a little more variety, but it also seems like I am not out of the rut yet. Either way, I don’t fault anyone else loving stories like these, and I obviously have not stopped reading these types of plots, but it is definitely something that I am aware of an am trying to weed out just a little bit.
So I picked this novel and in the first pages, I didn’t know if I was going to finish the story of Gloria (Glory) Ramirez, age 14, getting raped and almost beaten to death in the middle of the Texas oil fields. I kept moving forward in the novel because the writing was so stunning. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s westerns, books that the settings and landscapes are so bleak, sun bleached, and dry that you want to read them with a glass of water. I noticed while reading through the entirety of Valentine that I was thirsty and hot most of the time, like the heat was seeping through the sentences and into me. I read this over three days in several different settings, but in every one, I needed to have a glass of water next to me.
After the opening scene, where Gloria escapes her attacker, the novel turns a little, changes focus, leads us to a street in town where the women day drink and are in everyone’s business and the kids get into mischief. When the narrative and life changes to other things, particularly the aftermath of this singular event and how it has a ripple effect on the community, added to the fact that it is set in the ’70s, when racism and sexism is still a serious and losing battle, the novel really comes to life. For as great as the settings are in the beginning, the character development after makes Wetmore’s novel one of those books that I will recommend to everyone (with a disclaimer about the violence). I loved all of the characters. Every single one is well constructed and pulls on my empathy. From Mary Rose to Corrine, all of the characters are well rounded, believable, and have the emotions that makes the reader get lost in the story. This is one of those books that I will remember because I loved all of the characters.
I know that it is not fair to compare one author to another. Everyone is unique and doing their own great visions of things but I couldn’t help but think about one of my favorite all time books while reading this. I think the tone of Valentine, as well as the structure, reminded me of Little Children by Tom Perrotta, a novel I have loved and reread several times in my life. Valentine could be another book like this, one that I remember and reference when reading other novels. Even though it started with a premise I did not care for, it builds up such a fantastic world that I must recommend it to everyone I can. It is a thing of beauty, mystery, and profound sorrow.