In precise, stark language, Wetmore conjures menace and ironic, acerbic humor in this dazzling debut.

LITERARY FICTION

Elizabeth Wetmore

Valentine: A Novel

Harper

Hardcover (also available as an e-book, audiobook, on audio CD, and large-print paperback), 978-0-0629-1326-5, 320 pgs., $26.99

March 31, 2020

 

“People think it’s all snakes and scorpions out there in the oil patch, but hell, those are the most harmless things in the county.”

 

“Sunday morning begins . . . with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup . . . His cowboy hat is pulled down far enough that the girl sitting outside on the dusty ground can see only his pale jaw, freckled and nearly hairless, a face that will never need a daily shave, no matter how old he gets, but she is hoping he dies young.” In the light of day, Gloria Ramírez can just make out a road leading to a ranch house. She can also see the roughneck’s skin and blood under her fingernails.

 

The rape of fourteen-year-old Gloria by an Anglo man in the upper reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert just outside Odessa, Texas, in 1976 divides the town, husbands from wives, children from parents, faithful from faithful, friends from friends. As soon as Mary Rose Whitehead opens her ranch-house door to Gloria’s knock that morning after Valentine’s Day, her life is irrevocably altered. After this day, Gloria will insist on being called “Glory” because she can only hear her name in the rapist’s voice.

 

Valentine is the new book from West Texas native Elizabeth Wetmore. Wetmore is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Iowa Review, and other literary journals. A dazzling debut, Valentine sets the hook in the first paragraph, catching firmly in the soft meat of your mouth, impossible to spit out.

 

Wetmore employs multiple characters and points of view to narrate her story, from the victim to the ranch wife to the residents of the neighborhood in Odessa to which she moves. The pace is almost languorous in places, as Wetmore interrupts her plot to present her characters’ backstories, but she uses this device to convey community reaction, and you won’t mind as these women and girls come alive on the page.

 

The horrific assault functions as the vehicle for Wetmore’s examination of the place of women, these strivers and survivors so restless within their boundaries, in a particular time and place, with its casual racism and sexism (“I look at [the jury] too and realize with a start that there are only two women in the room—[the court reporter] and me. We don’t belong here, I think. This room isn’t for us.”), hypocrisy, compromises, moral choices, and what happens when you are sick to death of bending. You’ll want to shake some of them, hug others, and sometimes you’ll want to stand and applaud.

 

Wetmore does accelerate toward the climax, as a months-long drought is broken by powerful storms, and your heart rate will speed up along with it, red dirt turning the sky pink and orange, thunderstorms the color of old bruises and ripe plums.

 

In precise, stark, economical language, Wetmore conjures menace as well as an ironic, sometimes acerbic, humor (“He’s a snake. If you turned the air conditioner up high enough, his heart rate would plummet.”). Glory’s detachment (“. . . this body—yesterday, she would have called it mine”) in the rape’s immediate aftermath is deftly, painfully rendered. A small mercy: Wetmore never details the rape, but it’s a gut punch when she almost offhandedly mentions that Glory’s spleen had to be removed. 

 

Summer in Odessa: “The day is lit up like an interrogation room, the sun a fierce bulb in an otherwise empty sky.” I feel this place viscerally, can see every location in my mind’s eye, having lived in Odessa between the ages of eight and sixteen. I was at the Elvis concert referenced in Valentine, watched the first Star Wars movie at the drive-in in 1977, visited that bookmobile, abandoned my younger cousin on a street corner (pursuing the Pied Piper music of the ice cream truck on a blisteringly hot summer day—I got into trouble for that) in the very neighborhood where Mary Rose rents a house.

 

In literature, birds usually symbolize freedom; most of the birds in Valentine are dead, stalked by a feral cat, which carries double meanings in symbolism, light and dark, rest and action, as well as patience, independence, and courage. The women in Valentine are a contradictory lot but ultimately, they are cats, not birds.

 

Elizabeth Wetmore is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Iowa Review, and other literary journals. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, as well as a grant from the Barbara Deming Foundation. She was also a Rona Jaffe Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf and a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and one of six Writers in Residence at Hedgebrook. A native of West Texas, she lives and works in Chicago.