Elizabeth Wetmore crafts a multi-layered debut novel in Valentine. To me, it reads like a book written by a more experienced author. She takes many points of view and melds them together into a narrative as slick and sticky as unrefined oil. Which is fitting since Valentine is set in a small town in West Texas.
1970s America was not an easy time to be a woman. Living in the city of Odessa in West Texas was even harder. As it headed towards an oil boom, Odessa was rippling with testosterone, from oil riggers and cattlemen.
In the midst of this male dominated environment, a 15-year old Mexican girl is assaulted by a man she hardly knows. She shows up, bloody and scared, at the door of a rancher’s wife. Not only are their lives changed forever, but the event touches the women and young girls around them. These are the tales Wetmore tells in Valentine.
Several books I’ve read recently combine the stories of several women, as Valentine does. Like Disappearing Earth, the women are all affected by a frightening event. Similarly, as in Girl, Woman, Other, they know each other as neighbors and acquaintances. Valentine felt more emotional than the former and more intimate than the latter. It’s one of my favorite five-star fiction books of 2020.
Wetmore’s prose is nostalgic and flows like the Rio Grande. She traverses the neighborhoods and brings us into the kitchens of these folks. Yes, there’s a crime and a trial. But this isn’t a mystery or a courtroom drama. It burrows right down into the raw and ragged hearts of the female population of Odessa.
Wetmore portrays her characters’ insecurities, but she also shows their bravery. This is particularly true of Mary Rose, who helps the woman at her door. She is a mama lion, protecting not only her own children, but striving to help this young victim. And we get to watch her strength evolve in Wetmore’s capable hands.
The audiobook narration by Cassandra Campbell is melodic and employs just the right twang. She captures West Texas as well as she did the Low Country in Where the Crawdads Sing, which also combines genres.
I recommend Valentine if you’re nostalgic for the 70s, but be prepared for some rampant misogyny. You’ll need to endure it, just like the characters. I dare you to fall in love with these terrific girls and women.