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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Ordinary Sins" by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Issue: Oct. 20, 2014

Story: "Ordinary Sins"

Author: Kirstin Valdez Quade

Rating: $

Review: Kirstin Valdez Quade seems to be establishing a nice little career for herself in the world of American Letters. I use the diminutive "little" there because, for a writer, let's face it: she's a baby. She recently received a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Award (which I didn't even know was a thing until about three minutes ago) and has amassed a nice list of publications in places like Best American Short Stories and The New Yorker, as well as a book. In other words, she's got the chops and the resume of a great fiction writer at the start of what could be a long and distinguished career...or she could be on her way to becoming another blip on the radar screen with a lot of other blips. But right now, she's pulling up trees.

"Ordinary Sins" is a miniature exploration into Catholic and human values through the eyes of Crystal, a young woman who is pregnant out of wedlock and who works as an administrative assistant to two Catholic priests. Father Paul is the established head of the parish, Father Leon is the newly-arrived priest from Nigeria..arrived to do what, exactly, is part of the tension of the story.

The real tension, however, comes from Crystal's predicament and the shame she feels (or thinks she should feel) every day at her workplace. While Father Paul remains sort of benignly neglectful of Crystal's condition, Father Leon doesn't try very hard to hide his disgust with having to deal with Crystal every day. As it turns out, Father Paul is understanding of Crystal's "sin" because he has a secret of his own, and it looks like Father Leon may have been sent to -- at the least -- keep an eye on him and -- at the most -- take over the parish. Don't worry, Father Paul's secret does not have to do with inappropriate sexual behavior toward children, but rather, a far more "ordinary sin."

"Ordinary Sins" tackles a few different conundrums in one. Any story involving the Catholic church is bound to be fraught with all sorts of heavy symbolism and double meanings and guilt and shame and all that, but Valdez Quade does a decent job of keeping it relatively approachable, thanks to her setting the story through Crystal's eyes. Were Crystal a "better" Catholic or a worse person, the story might have seemed a bit quirky or preachy; however, Crystal is a pretty ordinary person with a basically healthy sense of self, even if she's confused about her plight and regretful of some of her life choices (and hell, who isn't in their early 20s?).

Crystal is the most "human" character in the story, and by that I mean she's the best person. Not because she ultimately triumphs over evil or saves someone from drowning, or whatever, but because she's the least judgmental and the most accepting. Even in the face of daily judgment by her supervisor, Father Leon, and her daily employ in an institution whose values would condemn her behavior and make her an outcast, she maintains her self-dignity and her compassion for others. Perhaps she's the most Christlike of all the so-called "Christians" she works around?

From a purely mechanical perspective, the "big event" that happens in the story seems a little contrived or, if not contrived, a bit "pull-one-out-of-the-hat"-ish. It's like Valdez Quade had to make something "happen" for this to be a story, so she picked something that seemed convenient and wrote it in. I think a real feat of writing would have been to keep this story's action a little more subtle but let the inner conflict of the characters do the "acting." On the other hand, I could just as easily see myself bemoaning the fact that nothing happens in a story like this. Faced with a choice to make, she made one. And frankly, it takes a master (like, a James Joyce-level master) to pull off a tightly-written, compelling, engaging and thought-provoking story in which nothing happens...which is most of what we call Literary Fiction anyway.

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