The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
The blurbs on my copy of The Madonnas of Echo Park compare Skyhorse (favorably) to Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, and Chang-Rae Lee. All of these are admirable writers, but I think Skyhorse’s debut novel has much more in common with James Joyce’s Dubliners than it does with any of those aforementioned authors. Madonnas, like Dubliners, consists of short stories focusing on specific people in a specific place, combining to present an overall vision and atmosphere unique to the people and culture portrayed. Unlike Dubliners, Madonnas moves about in time as well, and is more recognizably a novel rather than a collection of vignettes. By the end Madonnas, I was able to reflect on what had changed for the characters and what had stayed the same.
I was able to mark how the characters had grown, and not only that, but how Echo Park itself had grown and changed over the course of four generations or so. One thing I love about this novel is how the setting itself — in any of its incarnations– is so important to the action. The characters wouldn’t be who they are if they’d been any place else. Echo Park exists in tension with Mexico as an idea. All of the narrators are Latino, and they all address the idea of Mexico specifically and the idea of Mexican-ness. All of them, even the illegal immigrant speaker who begins the novel, claim America as their home, and Echo Park more specifically, yet they feel the need to respond to this unspoken idea that they don’t really belong there.
I’m still deciding what this books means. It certainly touches on themes common to nonwhite, American authors: questions of identity, liminality, home, and family. My edition of this novel features a Q&A with the author, who claims a specific character (Aurora) was the central character, which I certainly did not pick up on during my initial reading, but the more I think about it, the more I think Echo Park is the main character. All these other people, all their concerns, center on the place itself.
This book was a quick read, but is packed with meaning. It would definitely reward re-reading. I’m sure I’ll have to return to it before I can let it rest in my mind. I am hesitant to mention the few things I didn’t like because those issues might just stem from a misunderstanding on my part, or, worse, from my culturally privileged position. That said: Sometimes the way Skyhorse wrote his female characters voices put my back up. I mean, it sounded, sometimes, like they were speaking the way a man might fantasize a woman speaking. The only other author I can think of off the top of my head who does this is Robert Ludlum, but he’s not the only one. I just cringe whenever Ludlum 1. has a female character, and 2. lets her speak. Unfortunately, there were some cringe-worthy moments in Madonnas as well. I also thought everyone was hypersexed. I know it’s really fashionable to talk “honestly” about sex and sexuality in adult (as in, not YA, not as in porn) literature, but I don’t care. Sex is important, sure, but it’s not omnipresent. In Echo Park, sex becomes just another piece of particulate matter contributing to LA’s smog. Maybe I’m undersexed or a prude or whatever, but come on. It smacks of the adolescent paranoia that EVERYONE IS DOING IT BUT YOU. Sometimes it’s more mature to communicate with a significant silence.
BUT– those are just two tiny things, likely unique to me, that may not even bother me when I reread this novel, and are irrelevant to the novel as whole anyway.
I can’t recommend this book to every reader, but I think I can recommend it to any reader looking for some mental calisthenics. If you read it, let me know what you think. And let me know what you think about the title. The Q&A says the book’s original title was Amexicans. Do you think it would’ve been better, or do you prefer the published title? Why? I’m certainly looking forward to Skyhorse’s next book, a memoir.