It is rare to discover a page-turning plot told in mesmerizing language, and featuring a cast of haunting true-to-life characters. And, although set in west Texas in the 70s, relevant to all that ails us, still.
This is VALENTINE, remarkably a first novel by a gifted writer.
From page one, you will not believe the power of the prose – colorful descriptions of a landscape that make you feel the dry brush against your skin and the scent of oil in your nose. And, a cast of characters who pop off the page. Honestly, this book is powerful.
The set up reminded me of another terrific novel, published last year: DISAPPEARING EARTH, by Julie Philips. Both begin with a horrific event, in this case a violent assault against an adolescent Mexican girl, and spend the rest of the novel revealing the reverberations through the lives of the women residents. In this book, all the women, and children, live on one street, and they watch out for each other and/or judge each other – unwed mothers, widows, women who give up and leave, daughters tending to fathers or longing for mothers, and one woman who stands up for the raped girl, all struggling to overcome misogyny and racism and make sense of their lives, and their futures.
Ginny will remember pushing her daughter’s fine brown hair out of her eyes, the smell of oatmeal and Ivory soap, the chocolate on her chin from the Valentine’s candy she’s been eating all morning, and the shine on her cheeks from the suntain lotion Ginny swiped across her face before they left the house. Ginny’s hand trembles and she thinks, Take her. Make it work somehow. But Debra Ann scoots away, saying, Quit it. Because to her, this is still like any other Sunday morning and her mother might be nagging her about any of the usual things. To her, even Ginny’s tears have become old hat.
The Viet Nam war hovers over the story, contributing to the layers of fear and instability that permeate this town, maybe many during those years, including broken war veterans who suffer and/or implode, usually at the expense of their women and children.
When they get home, all their problems will still be there. They will still be a young man and a young woman with the worst war of their lives just a few years behind them, with worries and fears and a little girl to feed and love. They will fight over money and sex, and whose turn it is to mow the yard, wash the dishes, pay the bills. In a few years, Corrine will threaten to tear it all down when she falls in love with the social studies teacher, and a few years after that, Potter will do something similar. And each time they will grit their teeth and wait to love each other again, and when they do, it will be a wonder.
Wetmore’s ability to see into the heart of her characters and reflect so profoundly on the human condition, and what ails us all, reminds me of Marilyn Robinson, one of the modern masters [and one of Wetmore’s teachers at Iowa Writers Workshop.] She often comments on what will come after we leave the story, making the few months of the novel seem like she has visited a generation and beyond.