Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Categories: Historical Fiction
First Publication Date: March 31st 2020
I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: 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 heartbreaking, gutting novel set in 1970s Texas and it’s centered around the violent attack on a young Mexican girl called Gloria that divides a town – while some call it a “lover’s spat” and question why one of their boys is in trouble because of a “misunderstanding”, Mary Rose tells it as she saw it when the girl arrived at the front door on Valentine’s day; this was no lover’s spat. It was rape.
I find books that tackle rape and especially about victims not being believed really hard to read, and this was no exception – hence my very long delay in picking up this eARC. If you have triggers, please check my last line of this review, where I’ve listed all the triggers I identified in this book. Elizabeth Wetmore treats the themes of this book with respect and sensibility but does not shy away from the horrors of them and I found it emotionally difficult to go through. In terms of theme and the kind of feelings this gave me, Valentine reminded me a lot of Kept Animals by Kate Milliken in terms of the writing, the darker tone (although Kept Animals is a Sapphic coming-of-age story), the setting and a bit of the theme.
The main selling point of this book for me was its setting: Texas in the 70s was experiencing an oil boom and hoped for progress and opportunity. I haven’t read many books with this setting and it really interested me – otherwise I normally don’t gravitate towards books that I know will be so bleak.
In the end, the book’s choice of having several narrators, and so several storylines to follow, made it drag on for what felt like forever. I was constantly torn between “this is such a great book” and “I’m exhausted”. The bleakness of the main theme, as well as the result of the rapist’s trial being something the reader expects already makes the inevitability of it feel even heavier. It probably did not help I had been quite depressed when reading this. On the one hand, it’s a very realistic story; on the other, I’m so tired of it. In its heart, Valentine is a story about female anger. It tries (and mostly succeeds) in also being about racism and xenophobia, too, but mostly it revolved around violence against women, especially when we consider that Glory/Gloria got a lot less narrative voice than Mary Rose. I wavered between 3 and 4 stars, but in the end the “dragging on” feel was overpowering and took a lot of the story’s effect in my opinion.
Without spoiling the end, I would say there is something about it that made this book go from being categorized in my mind as “a bleak story about a girl being brutalized and never seeing justice” to “one of these books inspired by the #MeToo movement about female rage”. While there are some that bring to the page the revenge fantasy (They Never Learn by Layne Fargo is the best example that comes to mind) , this one is rather among those that tell stories of victimization realistically (in the line of My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell).
Trigger warnings: rape of underage victim, victim not believed, racism, xenophobia, misogyny.