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Wetmore’s debut “Valentine” is a gripping women's saga

“Valentine” (Harper), by Elizabeth Wetmore Don’t be misled by the title of Elizabeth Wetmore ’s excellent debut novel, “Valentine.” It is not a gentle narrative that begets sweet memories of romance. The opening two sections, “Gloria” and “Mary Rose,” are tense and riveting, haunting the story throughout.

In the first section, the life of 14-year-old Gloria Ramirez hangs in the balance as the sun rises over the windswept flatlands of West Texas. The victim of a vicious beating and rape, she retrieves her scattered clothes and begins her escape. The teen who assaulted her, cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, sleeps nearby at the wheel of his pickup.

In the second, Mary Rose Whitehead, a pregnant woman with a grade-school daughter, is confronted on the front porch of her isolated ranch house by Gloria’s rapist, Dale Strickland. He may be young and fuzzy-cheeked, but he is terrifying.

This scene unfolds with a building sense of dread. In its aftermath, the narrative seems to exhale. In ensuing sections, the story calms as the lives of other women around Odessa, Texas — Corrine, Ginny, Suzanne, Karla — are told with less menace. Each, however, touches on the rape and its consequences, with Wetmore deftly depicting this oil patch region, circa 1976, and its many echoes in the lives of women and immigrants today.

While the novel focuses mostly on the fate of Gloria and Mary Rose, it is almost taken over by a 10-year-old girl, Debra Ann Pierce. Known as D.A., she is a footloose child full of imagination and mischief.

In the book’s most beguiling twist, D.A. befriends a 22-year-old impoverished Vietnam vet who is working in a strip joint and living deep inside a huge drainage pipe. At first, this pairing seems to have all the makings of a lurid disaster. In the end, however, D.A. emerges a gritty, welcome addition to American literature’s pantheon of young heroines.

The narrative stalls at times: A gathering of chattering women at a church meeting moves slowly, and the section on Suzanne, who sells Avon and Tupperware products, seems unnecessary. But Wetmore, a native of West Texas and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, offers with her first novel a harrowing narrative of a region she knows well, described with precision and passion.

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