Lately, if I’ve read a book that has garnered a long list of prizes (2021 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, best book of year by NPR and Publisher’s weekly and over the top reviews, I read it with great anticipation and am usually surprised by the acclaim, disappointed with the story or lack thereof, or wondering why I even read it in the first place. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to read this book thinking it would be depressing and a slog despite great literary merit and the accolades.
But, committed as I am to my book clubs, if it’s on the list, I’ll read it. I started The Five Wounds skeptically and admittedly, wasn’t drawn in at first. But by the time I was halfway through, I had to slow my pace because I knew I’d be sad to leave this constellation of characters. This was a wonderful book with beautifully drawn characters that will stay with me for a long time.
This story is about a family living in a small town in northern New Mexico. In the hands of a writer less precise than this one, it could have failed on stereotypes alone, with cultural tropes intact. However, this is not the case. It is layered in a way that gives you empathy and understanding for the array of huge obstacles such as poverty, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy that can consume a family’s best intentions. And that’s just the beginning.
This is the story of the Padillo family as they navigate the first year of a new baby’s life. It explores their struggle to carve a brighter future from the remnants of their broken past. The characters of this five generation story: Amadeo, a thirty-something unemployed, alcoholic, deadbeat father who lives with his mother; Angel, his 15-year old pregnant daughter; Yolanda, the abuela enabler-in-chief whose house they live who is dealing with a recent discovery and the scars of her very difficult marriage; Marissa, Angel’s mother who raised her alone and has chosen a relationship with an unsuitable man over her daughter, and Tio Tive, the uncle who holds the family’s history and is still reeling from the drug death of his son.
I know. It may sound like a melodrama but trust me, taking the trip with this multigenerational family over the one year story is worth it.
As the story opens, it is Easter week. Amadeo Padilla is looking for redemption and thinks he will find it during the enactment of Christ’s crucifixion in the Good Friday procession. With sincere belief, he carries this to an extreme by allowing himself to be crucified, nails and all. At the same time, his fifteen year old daughter, Angel shows up at the house he lives in with his mother, Yolanda, having had a fight with her mother, Marissa, over her abusive live in boyfriend. Yolanda is away on vacation in Las Vegas when an unrelenting headache leaves her facing the fight of her life that she is ill-equipped to handle. She returns home to find a family unable to care for her or themselves.
Angel is the warm hearted center of the story. The most nuanced and complex of the characters. She is rash, then careful. Responsible, then capricious. A diligent student who then sabotages herself. A dedicated mother, then negligent. Watching her fits and starts is a window into the life of a confused teenager asked too absorb too much responsibility.
But there is a light in her too bright to dim
This person was in her, part of her, and now he’s not and for the rest of her life, she’ll be sharing him with the world. It’s amazing to her how the human body can stretch, and she thinks that if the heart can, too, maybe it can stretch big enough to fit them all.
The school Angel attends,Smart Start!, is her haven. It gives her a safe place to learn parenting skills, work toward her GED, gain faith in herself, and imagine a possible secure future for her and her baby. Her teacher, Brianna, is a role model she deeply respects and internalizes the lessons Brianna teaches as guideposts. But people aren’t always as they appear. Brianna has he own set of problems and takes missteps that deeply disappoints Angel.
There was never any question in Angel’s mind that she would forgive her teacher. She expected, after all, that people would mistreat her—that people in general mistreat other people—and though she minded, really, really minded, what she wanted was the time after when they could be closer for it.
In 2009, Kirsten Valdez Quade published a short story in the New Yorker that was extremely well received. After its publication, she was approached about expanding it into a novel. Declining the opportunity because she considered herself a short story writer, she soon realized that many of the characters and themes she explored in her stories were similar to the Padilla family and she began to write the novel. In an interview at the bookstore , Politics and Prose, she said it took her ten years to write. I think that’s what made the narrative so compelling. The characters and story, developed over time, made the novel rich, complex, and very believable.
Sometimes in reading these stories about struggling dysfunctional families, you feel pulled down by them and just want to close the book. Not so here. As in life, there were light moments among the dark that makes room for you to change your perspective. This might not be your family, but there are aspects of their situations that deeply resonate. Particularly, when it comes to raising children.
Having children is terrifying, the way they become adults and go out into the world with cars and functioning reproductive systems and credit cards, the way, before they’ve developed any sense of fear, they are equipped to make adult sized mistakes with adult sized consequences.