The gift and challenge of love in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s ‘The Five Wounds’

In introducing A Confederacy of Dunces back in May of 2020, I quoted from Zadie Smith’s 2018 piercing short story, “Now More Than Ever.” The narrator of the story asserts something about the nature of human pain that kept ringing in my ears while I read Kirstin Valdez Quade’s new novel, The Five Wounds. Having just suggested what might be unfurling in a maid’s mind as she served dinner to a wealthy family in an old Hollywood movie, Smith’s narrator holds forth on suffering and pain:

To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering. It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose. No one ever got lynched and thought, Well, at least this will lead inexorably to the civil-rights movement. They just shook, suffered, screamed, and died. Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.

A haunting insight into violence, racist murder and the interiority of those who suffer grievous pain, the narrator’s statement about human pain seems both true and terribly limited. The assertion that “it is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on meaning or purpose” seems to ignore what may transpire inside the heart of one who suffers and why we might take on pain for love of another—or at least share in their pain in a meaningful way. Such an expansive notion of pain comes from a mixture of our human experience, our most definitive relationships and, for many readers here, our Catholic faith.

The narrator’s conclusion, however, might in fact be the case: “Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.” Pain can be symbolized, but it is in and of itself not a symbol of anything. It is a basic element: irreducible, immediate, concrete. It can awaken or transform, invigorate or incapacitate the one who suffers. It can be taken on. It can be lived through. It can be received from another and inflicted cruelly on another. It can overwhelm in its injustice or arbitrariness, and it can pester like the pain a baby feels as its teeth begin to emerge from its gums. Pain is a raw fact of human life.

Jesus Christ’s paschal pain is everywhere in The Five Wounds. A visceral reenactment of the passion of Jesus bookends the novel and allows for the insight that Amadeo Padilla, one of the novel’s three main characters, gains through the course of his family’s year of pain from one Lent to another. In watching yet another pained young man prepare for the role of carrying the cross of Jesus in the yearly re-enactment of the passion, Amadeo thinks, “The procession isn’t about punishment or shame. It is about needing to take on the pain of loved ones. To take on that pain, first you have to see it. And see how you inflict it” (404). Then, when the re-enactment reaches its climax on the book’s second Good Friday, Amadeo recognizes a further truth: “To feel a little of what Christ felt. Tío Tíve said that over a year ago. And what Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn’t know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge” (416).

Pain can be symbolized, but it is in and of itself not a symbol of anything. It is a basic element: irreducible, immediate, concrete.

For Christ, pain is not transformative or purgative, nor is its intensity somehow cathartic. Pain is something to be recognized and tended to in the lives of those whom one loves. Jesus takes up his cross and takes on pain because he loves the human beings to whom he ministered and taught along the way.

Often a person takes on pain because he or she loves another. Just after Connor’s birth in the novel, Angel—Amadeo’s teenage daughter and the life force of the novel—rages at a nurse who pricks her newborn baby’s foot with a needle: “‘Oh!’ cries Angel. Connor’s features freeze as if he’s surprised by the existence of pain. She is shocked at how deeply she feels his hurt” (148). It is the same degree of love and pain that Angel’s grandmother Yolanda feels for her son all her life. Such pain—stemming from love and relationship—is real, but somehow, because it is human, it can become a byproduct of a love distorted in its intensity.

For the Padilla family, it seems that pain is always lurking out there waiting. It is embodied in a wolf or a coyote standing tauntingly still in the middle of a dark road—something that stands in the way of getting somewhere safe. It is anticipatory pain, the pain of further, more dramatic suffering. It is daily ongoing pain, the burden of being working poor and Latinx and cut off from luck and innate privilege. It is the existential pain of being part of a community and a family which are both trying to survive addiction and its wide, lasting consequences.

After vomiting in his daughter’s delivery room, embarrassing himself publicly and being exiled to a waiting room, Amadeo has another insight. He recalls his role as Jesus in the Good Friday re-enactment: “The crucifixion feels very far away, not at all like something that happened to him in his own life. Angel is right—there is enough pain in the world, lurking darkly at the edges and poised to spring” (140). The ghostly presence of past losses also lurks around the life of this family. Past pain and the anticipatory pain that it engenders can only be worked through in relationship, through the bonds of a loving—though extremely flawed (that is, human)—family.

Could the resurrected Jesus’ five wounds—present but healed or healing—manifest the deeper meaning of the title of The Five Wounds?

I would imagine that by now, members of the Catholic Book Club—those who have just begun reading the novel or those who have worked through this introduction—are wondering why this novel was chosen for us to read and discuss. How is it Catholic? And is there anything about it that is uplifting and enriching?

After all, it seems that this book causes the reader pain: pain as they endure the varieties of suffering that the Padilla family works through; Yolanda’s physical pain as she suffers the effects of a malignant brain tumor; Amadeo’s pain of failure and remorse; Angel’s pain of abandonment and her “baby blues.” Call it compassion. Call it empathy. Call it the Christian experience of being heart-stretched, so one’s heart might one day be as pliable and warm as the heart of Christ.

The answer to these questions will be in your own experience of The Five Wounds. All I ask is that you stick with this family and be open to their goodness—from Lent to Lent and the long ordinary time in between. Below, I propose questions to continue the conversation around this book, which has already begun in earnest.

Questions for discussion:

Five wounds? Clearly, the five wounds are a direct reference to Christ’s passion. But, I wonder, why this title for the novel? In the last pages of the novel, there is a meeting of three mothers and two fathers. One of the mothers is quite new to the reader. Their meeting is filled with joy, but just as is the case with Christ’s resurrection, the wounds remain. That is, the marks of Jesus’ wounds are present, but they are healed—new skin and new life.

Could the resurrected Jesus’ five wounds—present but healed or healing—manifest the deeper meaning of this title? Could the resurrected five wounds in fact point to the new life that Connor is to this suddenly hopeful family of three mothers and two fathers?

Amadeo and prayer. For Amadeo, the morada is a place of prayer, but his most honest prayer probably comes immediately after he completely botches his most important windshield repair opportunity. As he sulks, he hurts himself and churns over the dynamics of Christ’s passion along with his own internal anguish:

Amadeo feels cheated. By Passion Week, by the penitents, by Jesus himself. The fact is that no one can be crucified every day—not even Jesus could pull off that miracle. Jesus never had to face the long dull aftermath of crucifixion, the daily business of shitting and tooth-cleaning and waking reluctantly to a new day. Jesus never had to watch people return to their own concerns and forget what he did for them (293-294).

This very real questioning of the Christian story and mundane reality of ordinary life represents a yearning for a deeper relationship with Christ, something he could not achieve simply by having his hands pierced with nails. What do you think of Amadeo’s prayer life—his morada prayers (10, 338-340), his desperate prayers (141, 222, 396)? Can you identify with Amadeo and his stretching toward the crucified Christ?

Yolanda and Stoicism undercut (mercifully) by love of life. Just before Yolanda is forced to retreat from the world—before she becomes a shut-in, a hospice patient—she has one extraordinary moment in the arms of a homely, goblin-like man. She dances, and they kiss. The man is just a stranger in a bar after work.Yolanda will dwell on this moment for the last few months of her life: “Out of nowhere, a dance, a visitation, a kiss. This is the world she is leaving” (282). Later, as her mind whirs before her death, she thinks of this moment again (368-369). I see Yolanda as a strange admixture of self-discipline, stoic resolve, toughness and inextinguishable sensuality—a zest for relationship, for life. Her yearning for Cal’s physicality even as she is wracked with illness surprises her (323).

What is your sense of Yolanda? She is Angel’s anchor, Amadeo’s enabler, the Padilla family’s sustainer, but she is also eminently human.

Patronizing whiteness. Angel cannot stand Ryan’s earnest pep talk meant to burgeon her self-confidence (381-383). She is repulsed by his entitlement and privilege, and she seeks to hurt him. Meanwhile Brianna fills her students with platitudes, patronizes Amadeo and the young mothers she serves and then becomes a selfish tyrant. And Eric Maxwell, the Family Foundation president, is described as a phony:

There’s something irritatingly democratic and condescending about Eric Maxwell, the way he hobnobs with his target population, engaging with the scattered siblings and parents of the teen mothers. You can almost see him gathering anecdotes of improved lives for the annual report. He shines his sympathetic attention first on one woman, then on another. And then, having discharged his duty, he gives Brianna a little salute and slips out, presumably to get his Volvo and hightail it back to Santa Fe (184).

One of the few white characters who seems to gain the respect of the Padillas is Mary Ann, who only appears in the last few pages of the novel. I wonder if part of the meaning of the coyote on the road—that vague danger lurking on the margins of the Padilla family’s life—is white culture, particularly as it appears in the guise of N.G.O. services. What do readers make of all this? Does the reality that Connor is half-white complicate things? Will Connor represent a melding of cultures?