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A synopsis of "The Redemption of Valerie Tolliver"

The Redemption of Valerie Tolliver is an unlikely love story, a mystery, a tale of flawed fathers and their legacies, a road trip gone bad, a spiritual awakening and more. Set in the year 2000, its namesake is a young woman running away from a troubled past in eastern Kentucky. It opens at the north end of coal country, somewhere between Scranton, Pennsylvania and the Pocono Mountains, in a small town named Gladburg. 

The narrator is Ray Brauner, an architect builder putting his life together after a divorce. Idealistic and driven, he works with a focus that leaves little room for other people or their problems. Ray finds Valerie attractive but she’s prickly and eccentric. A vegetarian with a penchant for quoting scripture and the unsettling ability to read people’s thoughts (often without understanding their intentions), she seems to excel at nothing but ping pong. And she hates that.

Valerie has become the butt of jokes in the town where Ray’s star is on the rise. Owing to a brief affair between them Ray feels obliged to remain friends with her. When Val is fired from her job and becomes partly responsible for an accident on Ray’s job site that nearly electrocutes him it seems like the last straw. But this is only the beginning of Ray’s rocky path toward understanding, with Valerie as his companion. Abrupt, abrasive and awkward, Val is an unlikely mentor, but slowly she becomes the closest thing to a spiritual guide the self-absorbed Ray has ever known.

A sense of foreboding overtakes the story as Valerie’s premonition that a mutual friend is in danger proves true. Rollin King’s father has skipped town to escape a gambling debt, leaving Rollin to handle the family business as well as the debt collectors. Matters are complicated by the business being King’s Tavern, a prestigious renovation project that figures highly in Ray’s portfolio of recent work. The night violent enforcers come to King’s Tavern to collect the old man’s debt, all but one present are put to shame. In a moment of sickening fear for everyone else, Val is the only person brave enough to stand up to the thugs - a heroic performance that marks her for reprisal.

Under a cloud of depression Ray turns to his work for solace - building a rich lawyer’s extravagant house. But his electrical burn becomes dangerously infected and he is hospitalized. So begins a series of escalating catastrophes that eventually includes another of their friends being beaten nearly to death in a parking lot. With Val’s life under threat Ray, just out of the hospital and by no means fully recovered, agrees to tow her sole possession – an old Airstream trailer – back to Kentucky.

The trip is filled with growing tension as Valerie’s ability to read Ray’s thoughts becomes nearly unbearable for them both. By the time her trailer is in place on the mountainside where her uncle Duane lives it has become a full-blown disaster. Suddenly Ray finds himself an outsider at the mercy of strangers, caught fast in the world that made Val into the person she is. His fate grows darker still when his deadly bacterial infection returns. With no way out, issues of pride and accountability rear their heads as all his assumptions about reality are shaken to the core. What happens next is so unimaginable Ray will never be the same.

By the end of the story the double meaning of the title becomes apparent, as Valerie becomes an unexpected agent of redemption for several around her. But she is not alone in moving Ray toward a state of grace. Valerie’s uncle Duane, a disfigured Vietnam hero and reclusive mountain man, is a mythical figure who won’t easily be forgotten. Other notable characters include Valerie’s damaged parents who cling desperately to a fragile dignity, a young Appalachian girl with strange eyes, and a rich lawyer preoccupied with finding his immortality in the stars (and maybe a few other secrets as well). But when all is done it’s a changed Ray who is left to contemplate his role in the lives of people around him.

At times harrowing, moving and funny, but above all deeply human, this is a story that makes a case for transcendence and gratitude amid the troubles that intrude into ordinary lives.


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