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Elizabeth Wetmore’s ‘Valentine’ is a thrilling debut that deserves your attention

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Valentine,” the debut novel by Elizabeth Wetmore, opens in a moment of sizzling silence, like the pause between rattlesnake strikes.

The sun rises on a 14-year-old girl named Gloria Ramírez. She’s been beaten and raped. Dale Strickland, her roughneck assailant, is sleeping off the night’s brutality in his truck. Gloria figures she’s got a few minutes to creep away across the Texas desert barefoot before he wakes up and kills her.

The tightening terror of this first chapter is impossible to break away from, but “Valentine” is a novel that serpentines around our expectations. This is not yet another thriller exploiting the plight of a young woman. Although Gloria remains the center of the plot, Wetmore quickly shifts our attention to a circle of women who respond to her assault.

Among those most affected is Mary Rose Whitehead, the first person to see Gloria after the rape. Mary Rose is a pregnant ranch wife alone with her daughter while her husband is away. Finding the bleeding girl knocking on her front door, she’s so horrified she almost vomits. “When I saw how badly Gloria had been beaten,” she says, “I was surprised she was able to muster it, to make that thick oak tremble beneath her fist.” But after that moment of shock, Mary Rose’s compassion is instinctive, her courage ferocious. When she sees Strickland’s truck tearing along the dusty road toward her house, she reaches for her rifle.

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In this small, racist city, the cost of standing up for a Mexican girl against a well-connected young man is hard. But what’s harder for Mary Rose to handle is the fear that Gloria’s attack awakens in her. She was never naive about the humiliation and condescension that young women endure, but now as a mother of her own little girl, she can’t shake the imminent possibility of retaliation. The dry air of Odessa, Tex., suddenly feels gritty with the spores of sexual violence. No amount of vigilance is sufficient, even if that anxiety pushes Mary Rose toward madness.

Wetmore, a native of West Texas who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, keeps moving through a circle of female characters, effectively inverting the gender imbalance of traditional westerns, mysteries and legal thrillers. Like Miriam Toews’s “Women Talking,” “Valentine” is a story about how women — particularly women without much education or money — negotiate a culture of masculine brutality. This is the story of their lives in a backwater oil town in the mid-1970s, which Wetmore seems to know with empathy so deep it aches. Taught they were put on Earth to cheer men on, most women in these parts learn early to wheedle and endure. A few are snuffed out every year, their bodies found among the oil works; and a few fight back with deadly force — but even those resisters find the terms of victory harsh.

More than 100 women were raped by their neighbors for years — but no one would believe them.

Yes, a variety of good and bad men also pass through the story as husbands, lawyers and laborers, and a chorus of oily misogynists is always chuckling away at the bar or the diner. But they remain on the periphery of these pages, sometimes supportive, usually threatening. As America’s economy and demographics have turned further against their ideals, they’ve grown convinced that they’ve “lost their war against chaos and degeneracy.”

Wetmore is particularly unsparing in her portrayal of this community’s flexible moral standards. While Mary Rose keeps pointing out that Gloria is just a child, others remind her that Mexican gals grow up faster, that “she didn’t look fourteen,” that she had climbed willingly into Strickland’s truck, that Strickland was just letting off a little steam — and, in any case, “he’s a good kid” from a fine family. It’s a sobering demonstration of the fact that sexism and racism are two sides of the same coin that usually bails out monstrous men.

Given the traumatizing opening of “Valentine,” readers may initially feel disoriented by the body of the novel, which develops a different pace and seems to follow a different focus. The investigation into Gloria’s rape, the impending trial — these easily dramatized issues fade into the background. Instead, Wetmore introduces us to a grieving widow determined to give up on life, a girl whose mother recently abandoned her, and a host of church ladies striving with varying success to fulfill an impossible standard of wifely perfection. If these chapters weren’t so carefully wrought and emotionally compelling, they might feel like mere distractions from the prosecution of Gloria’s attacker. Wetmore is carefully sketching out a complex network of female lives and watching the way they absorb, ignore, justify and resist this latest assault against a young woman.

Several of these chapters are masterful short stories in their own right, but Wetmore knits them together with increasing intensity. Long before we know it, several disparate lives are pointed toward a tragic collision, and suddenly a horrible echo of Dale Strickland’s violence seems destined to reverberate through this community.

With most bookstores closed and our attention fixated on the epidemiological and financial disasters ravaging America, now seems like the worst possible moment to release a debut novel. But Wetmore has written something thrilling and thoughtful. Don’t let the launch of this novelist’s career be drowned out. Someday book clubs will meet again, and this would be a rousing choice.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.

By Elizabeth Wetmore

Harper. 308 pp. $26.99

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