Thursday, April 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse. Published 2009 by Free Press. Paperback.

Winner of the 2011 Hemingway/Pen Foundation Award, The Madonnas of Echo Park is a novel of interconnected short stories about Mexican and Mexican-American men and women in Los Angeles. The characters include a day laborer, a maid, a teenage girl or two, a woman who collects coats, a bus driver, and more.

Each of the characters occupies a slightly different niche in the community in and around Echo Park, a traditionally-Mexican area on its way to gentrification. Felicia, a hardworking housecleaner, has a strange relationship with her lonely employer, a woman who wants to bond with Felicia and keep her at a distance at the same time. Efren Mendoza is a rule-abiding bus driver whose narrative starts off crisp and contained, then gradually becomes angrier and more chaotic as he slowly loses control. His story was one of my favorites because he undergoes such a dramatic transformation- or maybe he doesn't. I also loved the final story, "La Luz y La Tierra," about Aurora Esperanza, a young woman trying, like everyone in the book, to find her place in the world. I think this story is the most successful in creating a wonderfully sympathetic character and weaving together stories of the other characters in the book.

I thought overall Skyhorse's greatest strength in the book is his setting. The Madonnas is like a lot of interlinked-short-stories books (think Olive Kitteridge among others) in the way he weaves his characters in and out of the stories; there's always at least one connection between the focal character of a given story and the larger narrative and I came away with the sense of a complex community populated by lots of different kinds of people. I liked his characters too but some were definitely more memorable than others. The teenage-girl characters have a kind of sameness about them, all obsessed with this or that pop star; I wish there was a little more variety there. Efren the bus driver is a scary creation, and Beatriz, the woman who thinks she sees the Blessed Virgin, was unforgettable. I liked Skyhorse's use of Catholic mysticism in her story and others.

I'd recommend The Madonnas to book clubs and to people interested in contemporary immigrant fiction and stories about California. It was a pretty quick read for me and one that I enjoyed, although I can't say I loved it. But it's the kind of book that I think lots of readers will enjoy and find moving and memorable.

Rating: BACKLIST

The Madonnas of Echo Park
by Brando Skyhorse
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.