Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel, Valentine, takes place in Odessa, Texas, in the months following a Mexican American girl’s rape by a white oil rigger. It’s 1976, and an oil boom has made Odessa bright and cruel, a place where “we are all praying for you” and “bless your heart” are slights. Women bolster and conform to male perspectives. The rape case is adjudicated on porches and in fellowship halls before it ever goes to trial.
Valentine, though, means to push against that way of seeing. The novel is narrated by a chorus of female outsiders, including Gloria, the 14-year-old who was raped; Mary Rose, a young mother and the first to see Gloria after the assault; Corrine, a new widow eager to drink herself into oblivion; and Debra Ann, a motherless, precocious, and largely unsupervised 10-year-old.
Initially, these characters are content in their ignorance. But the rape awakens them to the racism and sexism in their community. “Fourteen years old,” Corrine reflects after encountering victim-blaming at a bar. “As if there might have been some moral ambiguity…if Gloria Ramírez had been sixteen, or white.” Mary Rose, who is scheduled to testify, is hounded by ugly messages on her answering machine and confronted by church ladies who want her to stop discussing “this ugly business.” While the men of Odessa get drunk and make threats, the women undermine Gloria’s accusation with rumors and polite dismissiveness.
Mary Rose is agitated by the vitriol directed at her, but coming to terms with it means accepting that it has always been there. “As if I have never heard this kind of talk in my life,” she recognizes, “as if I didn’t grow up hearing it from my daddy at the dinner table, from all my aunts and uncles at the Thanksgiving table, from my own husband. But now I think about Gloria and her family and it rankles, like an open sore.” Just making the accusation has put Gloria’s life at risk, so she changes her name to Glory and retreats to heal her wounds, becoming less central to the narrative while the white women of the novel contend with their complicity.
“Mercy is hard in a place like this,” Mary Rose avows, and it is her reckoning with the costs and limits of mercy that constitutes the heart of Valentine. “I used to believe a person could teach herself to be merciful if she tried hard enough to walk in somebody else’s shoes,” she says, evoking the figure of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, like Harper Lee, Wetmore could have given more weight to the person of color at the center of her book. “Why don’t we give a shit about what happens to a girl like Glory Ramírez?” Mary Rose laments. In its failure to address that question, Valentine acknowledges the indomitability of the social order it critiques.
• By Elizabeth Wetmore
• HarperCollins Publishers, 320 pages, $26.99