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.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.


bermudaonion said...

I liked this one more than you did. It seems to have been overlooked by bloggers, so I'm glad to see it getting some attention.

Zibilee said...

You know, there has been much coverage on the blogs of books that are described as short story collections that link together a central story, but I have yet to read any of them. Back a few months ago, I bought Olive Kitteridge, but I still haven't given it a go. It sounds like I would really like this book, and I might have to check it out. It seems like there is a lot here to interest me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us.

Tracy said...

Sounds like a good book to get back on the reading habit/binge after a hiatus. Somewhat "important" and moving but a very quick read.

Skyhorse. I wonder how a name like that affects an author's career. Catchy, but it sounds Native American mystical to ignorant somewhat- Americanized-by-way-of-Hollywood me.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this in the book stores, but haven't bought it yet.

Kathleen said...

I've heard about this one on a few other blogs and will add it to my list. I'm a California native so that aspect will resonate with me and will feel familiar to me since I've grown up in an area with a large Hispanic immigrant population.

Vasilly said...

I agree with Cathy: I'm glad to see this book getting some attention. Efren is a very scary character. It's sad that there's probably many people like him walking around. The Virgin Mary story was absolutely amazing! I loved it. Great review.

Athira said...

I've heard so much about this book, so I've been curious to check this out for a while. I'm glad that you recommend it too.