Marissa and Amadeo were teenage parents to Angel, too. They never married: Marissa has done all the work of childrearing while Amadeo’s mother has cooked his meals and loaned him money he never repays. Now, after Marissa’s boyfriend threatens Angel, she runs to her grandmother’s house, meaning she also runs to her father. Though he makes some halting gestures in her direction, he relies on his mother in this realm as in all others. Yolanda is the rock and the keeper of family traditions and gatherings. She doesn’t exactly speak Spanish—like all the Padillas, she knows phrases here and there—but she, at least, can follow the nightly telenovelas that appear to have inspired this novel’s form. Told from the shifting perspectives of Amadeo, Angela, Yolanda, and Angel’s teacher Brianna, the plot is constructed in brief, intense dramatic scenes, some of them comic, some of them fraught, all enacted in direct, precise language. This is the world as the Padillas see it: the real world, the gritty world, with all its worries and sorrows and temptations, all its melodrama and genuine tragedy.
Yolanda recognizes why the young people of rural New Mexico have taken to heroin, “passing the syringe in a kind of communion.” She pictures “that first man, a conquistador, here in this dry new land for the purpose of domination and annihilation, yanking on the arm of his newly christened Indian wife, and from that union a son was born. Generations of injury chewed like blight into the leaves of the family tree: shaken skulls, knocking teeth, snapped wrists, collisions and brawls and fatal intoxication.” Amadeo’s mother sees the hermandads as “pure spots of hope, now that the communities are dwindling and drug-blighted.” What she doesn’t see is how her own enabling of her son’s addiction has sapped them both.
Her granddaughter Angel, however, is learning how to raise herself and a baby too. She attends Smart Starts!, a privately funded program for pregnant high-schoolers, where she studies for the GED and finds herself attracted to—and ultimately falls deeply in love with—the most abused and troubled of the teenage mothers, Lizette. Their couplings are depicted frankly, as are all the sex scenes throughout the book. (Even Yolanda, on her deathbed, will summon a vision of a man’s kiss, “the electric rush that will pass through her like absolution.”) Amadeo, too, craves human touch, and when he takes up with the teacher Angel idolizes, the two set in motion a betrayal that will devastate Angel and culminate in near-disaster.
Before the heart-thumping climax, however, two delightful characters will enter the Padillas’ lives: Angel’s baby, Connor, who is forever laughing at their carryings-on, and the baby’s father, Ryan, one of the most endearing nerds in recent literature. A fifteen-year-old father who skipped a grade, he calls Angel “Obtuse Angle”—they met in geometry class—and is enthralled by the son Angel never told him she was bearing. She is not remotely in love with him, but he is, as Yolanda repeats, a “nice boy,” undeterred by Angel’s cruelty.
Indeed, one of the most admirable risks Quade takes throughout this novel is how badly she allows Amadeo, Angel, and Brianna to behave. The characters are drawn in all their complexity, which allows for all kinds of moral possibility. Ryan persists in his visits to the family as if to say that it doesn’t matter how unlovable some of us make ourselves—we’re all still worthy of attention. By the time that second Good Friday procession rolls around, Amadeo will be able to reflect that “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.” If that insight wraps the matter up too neatly, too baldly, for my taste, most readers will have almost certainly seen it coming. That doesn’t spoil the ending: we know how the Crucifixion turns out, too.
Quade is hardly the first novelist to delve into Mexican-American religious traditions—Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, for example, have explored Catholic practices and symbols to strong effect. What sets The Five Wounds apart is its insistence on the centrality of the Crucifixion. If this is a novel uninterested in literary experimentation, it is also, despite its realistic appearance, a novel of ideas, or at least one big idea: the astounding notion that the son of God willingly endured torture and crucifixion for the sake of the most ordinary sinners. The Five Wounds suggests that suffering souls might find possibility and hope in that sacrifice.