Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: The Madonnas of Echo Park

The Madonnas of Echo Park
By Brando Skyhorse
Free Press 2010 
199 pages
From the library
PEN/Hemingway Award in 2013, #2

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel

Brando Skyhorse begins the Author's Note by saying that "this book was written because of a twelve-year-old girl named Aurora Esperanza." As a child, Skyhorse insulted a classmate about her ethnic background. He spends the next several years of his life trying to figure out how to apologize to a girl who disappeared from his school, but never from his thoughts. In The Madonnas of Echo Park, he imagines what happened to his classmate, as well as the people she knew and the houses and streets that she thought of as home. 

This book is a series of interconnected stories. One of the most interesting parts for me was finding the connections. The characters are not obviously related. Sometimes I would read through most of the story before discovering that this narrator was the neighbor, friend, or relative of a previous character. Skyhorse does a wonderful job of showing how connected our lives are, even if we are not aware of all of the links. 

The Madonnas of Echo Park touches on so many topics, including faith, family, identity, and a place to call home. Echo Park is a tiny community of LA populated by the people who are so often ignored - the day laborers waiting on the corner, the woman who keeps your house sparkling, the crazy lady muttering to herself at the bus stop. Skyhorse imbues each character with a distinct personality and story. Felicia is a maid who becomes unexpectedly close to the lady of the house. Duchess and Angie are best friends whose relationship dissolves just as quickly as it started. And our first story is about Hector, a man looking for day labor who is growing older and can't see his life getting any better.

He begins his tale by saying, "I measure the land not by what I have but by what I have lost, because the more you lose, the more American you become. In the rolling jade valleys of Elysian Park, my family lost their home in Chavez Ravine to the cheers of gringos rooting for a baseball team they stole from another town. Down the hill in Echo Park, I lost my wife - and the woman I left her for - when I ran out of excuses and they ran out of forgiveness. Across town, in Hollywood, I lost my job of eighteen years when a restaurant that catered to fashion and fame found its last customers were those who had neither. And my daughters, they are both lost to me, somewhere in the California sunshine. What I thought I could not lose was my place in this country. How can you lose something that never belonged to you?"

This slight novel packs a lot of punch. It would be easy to make this novel political, for Brando Skyhorse to condemn those of us who live in blissful ignorance of the pervasiveness of racism and class warfare. Instead, he writes about humanity and reminds us that everyone is the same at their core, regardless of which part of town they call their own. You will be thinking about the characters and about Echo Park itself for days after you finish the book. 


  1. This sounds amazing! It's on my mental tbr list now :)

    1. It's a short read, but a really good one! I hope you enjoy. :)

  2. Ok, the excerpt you provided is incredible! I'll admit that I'm not generally a fan of short story collections and have often tried to like them more and failed. This sounds like something I could get into. Perhaps a little sad, but so authentic. The cover art is pretty beautiful, as well. Thanks for recommending this one!

    1. I really liked that part of the book. That excerpt is on the first few pages and I sort of settled in to read, thinking "this is going to be good."

      It's so funny because I haven't been intending to pick up short story collections but I keep reading all of these books that are linked stories when I thought they were straight novels!