Book Review: Relentless, Raw Outrage, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

by Elizabeth Wetmore
Harper, 306 pages, $26.99

Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine, set in 1976 rural West Texas, is a novel of relentless and brutally raw outrage. A fury-filled howl of women caught in a life and a world in which they are abused, ignored, patronized, debased, abandoned, threatened, harassed, demeaned, and exploited.

Valentine never lets up in its drive to depict the bitter desperation, anger, and isolation of a small group of women with awkwardly and haphazardly intertwined lives. One is able to flee, but at the cost of rending all ties with her young daughter. Another finds a way to self-respect and control of her life, but only through attempted murder. A third has to work feverishly to bury her past and maintain a brittle front of respectability and success.

At the core of this wrathful novel, though, are four women—Debra Ann, a preteen; Gloria, a 14-year-old Mexican girl; Mary Rose, a young mother; and Corrine, an elderly widow—who are overwhelmed at every turn by the circumstances of their male-dominated existence. The best they can offer each other is a hesitant companionship. But each remains scarred, isolated, and bereft. Valentine is not so much a novel as a primal scream. It opens with the aftermath of Gloria’s rape.

Wetmore, a West Texas native who now lives in Chicago, chronicles the unrelenting blows that these women take, and mirrors them in her descriptions of the landscape and natural world they inhabit:

  • “Outside the sliding door, the western sky is the color of an old bruise.”
  • “It is nearly five o’clock and the sun beats like a fist against the top of her head.”
  • “When the morning is still as a corpse.”
  • “It is late June and the sun is murderous.”
  • “The heat, its meanness and persistence.”
  • “The sky turns the color of an old bruise, and they can see the dust cloud coming from fifty miles away…”
  • “The sun and heat are without mercy, and the wind blows hot against their faces.”

At one point, Debra Ann thinks: “Today, Aimee’s mother looks like a reed in a windstorm….hanging on, hoping she can bend enough to survive.”

The world of these women is one with a rich history of desperation. For instance, one woman’s grandmother told her a wealth of stories, such as, “In the spring of 1935 a cattleman’s wife served lunch to a dozen ranch hands and then hanged herself on the front porch. She didn’t even wash the dishes, Grandma said, just set them in the sink, took off her apron, and walked upstairs to change into her favorite shirtwaist.”

That was just one of many stories: “[Farm women] got lost in sleet storms and on their way home from church. They ran out of food and firewood in the middle of a blizzard. They buried babies that had been picked up and flung against the earth by a twister, and children who wandered into the yard during a dust storm and suffocated on the dirt from their own front yards.”

Those mornings “still as a corpse” and those stories of babies slammed to earth by tornados are the setting in which the plot of Valentine plays out, in which the reader watches the four women at the center live out their lives. We encounter more of the same.

It opens with Gloria, barefoot in the desert, walking away from her rapist, and ending up on the porch of Mary Rose.  The rest of the novel has to do with the wait for the rapist’s trial, its judgement, and repercussions.  Even more, though, Valentine has to do with the mourning and sorrows, small and large, of these four women—the uncertainties and losses, the yearning and desolation, the forlorn dread of facing the start of every day.

Some of the men in the novel, such as the rapist, are evil, through and through. Most, though, are immature, preoccupied or ineffectual. Potter, the one who is perhaps the most reasonable and affectionate to his wife, nonetheless, makes a unilateral decision about ending their relationship.

In Valentine, men and women are of different species, one of which always has the upper hand.

Valentine is available through the publisher and at most book stores.

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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).

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