Review of “Night of the Fiestas” By Kristin Valdez Quade
In “Night of the Fiestas” (W.W.Norton, 2015), Kristin Valdez Quade explores the complicated question of class and race in contemporary America — a double-sided coin of fascination and, often, disdain. Her characters might be separated from each other by socio-economic chasms, but their lives touch in intimate ways. The socialite is set against the striver, the climber against the arrived, the ambitious against the complacent, employer against employee, the well-adjusted against the malcontent. The sparks set off by these interactions awaken Valdez’s characters to their demons and disappointments, leaving them stunned and humbled by the consequences their own actions unleash. In several of the stories in this collection, we see the artlessness of the protagonists and how their blundering, all-too-human over reaching comes back to haunt them.
In “Cannute Commands the Tides”, Margaret, an older woman, dissatisfied with the mediocrity of her artistic achievement, becomes enamored with her cleaning woman, Carmen. Her dreams of emancipating and understanding Carmen end in violence and shock when the latter’s no-good adult son shows up at her home with a gun. Margaret becomes an escapee from her own mansion, a disappointed Cannute watching from the driveway, as Carmen tends to her abusive, criminal son, “the two of them as destructive and unstoppable as any force of nature”.
In “Jubilee”, Andrea, is to all concerned, the ultimate achiever. She is the daughter of working-class New Mexican parents. Her father owns a taco cart and has worked, all his life, in some capacity or the other in the fruit orchards and home of the wealthy, landowning Lowells. Andrea is admitted into Stanford on merit, and in her cohort is Parker Lowell, the daughter of her father’s employer. Every interaction between the two girls – including Andrea’s recollections of her childhood with Parker — is shrouded by the narrative of Andrea’s life, a narrative constructed by herself and skewed from having grown up in the shadow of the successful Lowells. In the face of Parker Lowell’s innate sense of ease, her beauty, her ‘whiteness’, and the many gifts of privilege she enjoys without question, Andrea is and will always be no more than a striver and an outsider. Andrea’s alienation is intensified from her notion that however hard she works and despite the professional success she knows will come to her, she was born to none of it. In this very keen revelation, Quade questions the truth of what is at heart a uniquely American theme — that of democracy and self-determination, of inventing one’s destiny in a society founded on the fruit of individual effort, free, as its immigrant beginnings would suggest, from the class and caste structures of the old country. Yet in Andrea’s struggle with class and race, Quade identifies our near-universal hankering to share a seat with the blue-bloods, and our instinct that it is more elegant or desirable, somehow, to be born into privilege than to earn it.
At the jubilee celebration that the story takes its name from, Andrea’s interactions with Parker are alternately awkward, manipulative and finally, damaging. One of her earliest memories is of Mr.Lowell yelling at her when he catches her plucking blueberries in the orchard. No doubt, it is a memory altered by Andrea’s resentment of the Lowells. At the end of the story, a chastened Andrea recalls that Mr.Lowell had not yelled at her, and instead had affectionately requested her to stop, and sent her away with a Coke. Having wounded both herself and Parker, Andrea returns to the orchard and plucks blueberries frantically. It is ironic and yet, not surprising at all, that the single activity that helps her escape her shame is the work of her parents and of her people – fruit picking. She returns to the work whose stain she has dreamed of erasing all of her life. Valdez Quade’s empathy and talent come through in the wisdom of this sentence that reveals Andrea’s need to obliterate her past and her actions, and if it were possible, her culpability.
“She picked and she picked, until she forgot that there were other people around, and as the leaves rustled and the light scattered around her, she forgot herself too.”
— Mary Ann Koruth