Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication Date: 11th June 2020.
Valentine by a Elizabeth Wetmore is one of those books that arrived through my door a few months back and got shelved for reading closer to publication.
I picked it up as I knew the publication date was coming up and as soon as I started reading I berated myself for leaving it so long!
The book opens up with a chapter that punches you straight in the stomach and thoroughly winds you. It is the aftermath of a brutal and violent rape of a 14 year old Mexican girl called Gloria Ramirez. Her attacker is Dale Strickland, a roughneck living and working in Odessa Texas during the oil boom of 1976.
We find Gloria plotting her escape as dawn breaks over the oil patch and Dale sleeps in the front of his pick up truck. She is lying in the dust barely daring to move. Watching the sky change colour and knowing she has to be brave and make her escape otherwise Strickland will surely kill her.
She stumbles her way to a ranch farmhouse owned by a local family. Mary Rose, heavily pregnant with her second child is confronted with this young girl battered, beaten and bloodied on her porch. She has to make the choice of whether to help the girl or turn a blind eye and keep her daughter Aimee safe.
It’s is not much of a choice and Mary Rose grabs her gun and ushers the girl inside. When Dale awakes and realises he needs to find the girl and cover his tracks, he arrives at the farmhouse and Mary Rose is once again faced with a dilemma. To give up the girl to him or protect her with all she has.
These decisions on that day will have repercussions on the lives of both Mary Rose and Gloria.
After this traumatic event, Mary Rose decides she no longer feels safe in the ranch and persuades her husband to rent a house in the centre of town on Larkspur Lane. Here she spends all her time with her young daughter Aimee and her new baby son. Her husband stays back at the ranch most of the time and she is left to look after the children and fend off unrelenting abusive calls due to her defence of Gloria and willingness to testify in the trial of Dale Strickland.
Strickland is a white man with many people jumping to his defence. Gloria is a teenage Mexican girl who chose to climb up into his truck and was a victim of her own stupidity in the eyes of the locals.
Mary Rose is absolutely furious with the treatment of this girl and the local reaction to her brutal rape and beating and is determined to stand up for her despite any possible consequences to herself or her family.
Her move to Larkspur Lane introduces us to more characters. We meet widow Corinne Shepherd who’s husband has just died after a long illness. She spends her days drinking and chain smoking and trying to forget. We learn about her marriage to Potter and their early relationship and we also become aware of a loose link between the couple and Gloria on the night she was attacked.
We also meet a little girl, 10 year old Debra Ann Pierce who has been abandoned by her mother and spends her time wandering up and down Larkspur Lane, bothering Corinne and the other women, and chatting to her imaginary friends.
There are various other characters that we get glimpses of. Peripheral characters who give extra depth to the main hub of characters. At first I thought the book was going to be a two-hander and we’d hear alternately from Gloria (later reinvented as Glory after the attack) and Mary Rose. However the more I read on, the more I realised we were seeing the event not only through the eyes of the two women closest to it, Glory who suffered and Mary Rose who was the first to see her after the attack, but also the people it affected as the reverberations of the aftermath rippled through the town.
At one point I did wonder whether we would hear from Glory’s perspective after the opening chapter. But she does appear further down the line. I was happy to find out what had happened to her but equally in retrospect I would have been just as happy to explore the attack through the eyes of those around her, however tenuous the links.
The horrific rape excepted, this book is very much a character study. We delve into the lives of these multi-generational females and experience their problems, their anxieties and the limitations forced upon them. They have wildly varying degrees of acceptance of their lot in life. Either being passive or railing against the inequalities.
There were a couple of moments that made me take a step back and consider what life was like for these women in small town Odessa in the 70’s. Corinne refers to wanting to return to teaching after the birth of her daughter, when she approaches the headmaster of the local school he tells her to ask her husband to call him with his permission for her return. Absolute madness!
But perhaps the most jarring passage is one where all the ways men can lose their lives are listed, mostly industrial accidents etc and then this line hits home:
And the women, how do we lose them? Usually, it‘s when one of the men kills them.
Such a poignant line and one that has stayed in my mind and will do for some time.
What Elizabeth Wetmore does with this novel is stunning. A real solid sense of place, you can almost feel like you are breathing in the dusty arid air. The sweltering heat is palpable and makes for an intense and gripping read.
There are so many themes to be explored in this book, sexual assault, violence against women, grief, morality, community, motherhood and its struggles. It would make a brilliant book club book with so much to talk about and delve into.
The fact that Valentine is Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel is hugely exciting. I will be looking out eagerly for more of her work in the future.
A thoroughly compelling and gut twisting read they I would very much recommend.
Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xx