Valentine is absolutely gorgeous. The writing is so vivid and transporting that I felt like I indwelled each character during their prospective chapters. It’s also one of the most tragic, heartbreaking stories I’ve read in a very long time. My heart almost physically ached during my time reading this book. But most of all, Valentine is immensely powerful. It proclaims an almost rebellious resilience in the face of heinous adversity that is fiercely and unequivocally feminist, and I felt impacted by it at a soul-deep level.
“Mercy is hard in a place like this…”
It took me a bit of time to adjust to the author’s choice to not include quotation marks in her dialogue. After I acclimated, I really appreciated this decision, because it ensured that readers are getting the story exclusively from the minds of the perspective characters. I realized that not a single man actually spoke a word over the course of this story. Every line of male dialogue is conveyed by the woman who remembers it, and there was something profound about that decision. Wetmore is giving a voice to the women who live their lives unheard, and denying a voice to the men who have kept these women quiet. The marginalized and disenfranchised are given the chance to scream their pain and rage at the top of their lungs, even if only inside their minds. They will be ignored no longer, at least in the pages of this book.
“Every August for the nearly thirty years she taught English, in an overheated classroom filled with farm boys and cheerleaders and roughneck wannabes reeking of aftershave and perfume, Corinne would spot the name of at least one misfit or dreamer on her fall roster. In a good year there might be two or three of them—the outcasts and weirdoes, the cellists and geniuses and acne ridden tuba players, the poets, the boys whose asthma precluded a high school football career and the girls who hadn’t learned to hide their smarts. Stories save lives, Corinne had said to those students. To the rest of them she said, I’ll wake you when it’s over.”
The terror induced by motherhood is thoroughly explored here, and how that fear can reshape a life. Motherhood is also shown as something to be feared in and of itself in a time and town where girls are kicked out of school just as soon as they’re visibly pregnant, and that condition seems to befall most every girl in the area while they’re still children themselves. We also see how racism, money, and rigid gender roles can choke a town into something poisoned and utterly devoid of kindness. We see a time when domestic abuse was so common that most didn’t even consider it abuse, and when victim shaming was so expected that rape victims kept silent. We see prejudice in a multitude of forms. But we also see a ferocity in these women and girls, and sometimes even mercy on behalf of others though they themselves have been shown none. They are survivors who have fought for that survival, and no man will take it from them.
“In the church where I grew up, we were taught that sin, even if it happens only in your heart, condemns you all the same. Grace is not assured to any of us, maybe not even most of us, and while being saved gives you a fighting chance, you must always hope that the sin lodged in your heart, like a bullet that cannot be removed without killing you, is not of the mortal kind.”
There was no melodrama in this story. Every moment of drama was real and harsh and necessary. Something about this book reminded me of certain classic Greek tragedies like Antigone or Medea. Not the plot, but the idea of women surviving adversity and finding strength and a voice in spite of the men who wish to suppress them. Madeline Miller’s Circe evoked a similar aura of resiliency around her title character. This could have made every male character in the periphery of Valentine into a crude caricature, but Wetmore didn’t paint all men as evil; just some men. We see a loving husband and a caring uncle and a gentle friend, who serve as reminders that savagery is a choice made, not a genetic component that comes with a penis. But we also see women who are afraid to speak up for themselves or for others, who purposely turn a blind eye because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable. All of these characters, whether male or female, perspective or secondary, are utterly and completely human, with all the good and ill that title holds.
“Our great-grandmothers feigned frailty until it was stitched to their hearts. Some of us still do the same. To speak up would require courage that we cannot even begin to imagine.
Are we guilty? We are guilty as sin, guilty as the day is long. If we every stoped and thought about it for very long, and we try not to, our guilt would be as bright and heavy as sunlight in August.”
This is a book where setting really matters. I’ve been in an oil town during a boom, and Wetmore captured it exactly. These towns become their own weird microcosm within society, and draw more criminals and their crimes than just about anywhere else in the States. Wetmore also did a great job of painting Texas in all its beautiful desolation. I could taste the dust and smell the gas and feel the storms brewing in the background. Texas might be harsh and hot, but there is nothing quite as breathtaking as seeing that expanse of sky, whether it’s blue as far as the eye can see or scattered with countless stars or turning the purple of a bruise as a storm moves in. And Wetmore was able to present both sides of this location incredibly well. As did the cover art, actually. Those rigs in the background could almost be horses. The writing was stellar, as well, and is what sets this novel more in the literary fiction genre than strictly historical fiction, in my opinion.
“In wrath may you remember mercy…”
Valentine is the most powerful debut I’ve read outside of the fantasy genre since I fell in love with The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. I was moved and enraged by nearly every page. It made me think, and reminded me to really appreciate where and when I live. I’m incredibly thankful that no part of this book felt like a page out of my own life. While it is definitely a difficult book to read due to the content, I absolutely recommend Valentine to any reader who wants a rallying cry to stand up for those who have been marginalized, and a reason to applaud those who live through trauma and don’t let it define them.
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