I heard an NPR interview with Brando Skyhorse, author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, that offered interesting insight into this book. Although Mexican American, Skyhorse was raised under the impression that he was Native American. He was named after Marlon Brando because his mother respected the actor for his refusal to accept an Academy Award, citing the treatment of Native Americans. His mother also changed their last name to Skyhorse.
Knowing this makes the opening of the book more interesting. Skyhorse precedes the novel with a story about events that inspired the novel. I thought this was a bad idea. But after reading the intro, I changed my attitude. It's a charming story that sets the reader up for a different kind of novel.
Let me get this out of the way right up front. I'm notorious for criticizing books written in first person. And this book is written in first person times ten. That's because each chapter in the book is told from the first-person standpoint of a different character. This should just annoy the crap out of me. And at first it does. But once I accepted the writing device, it made for an engaging and challenging read.
I particularly enjoyed the literary nature of the novel, with themes and ideas that radiate throughout the novel. There is the Madonna (the Virgin Mary), who appears as a reminder of powerful women who rely on tradition to build their lives. There is Madonna (Like a Virgin) who serves as the patron saint of a new generation of smart, young women set on abandoning tradition (or are they?). And then there is the endless blooming and fading of Jacaranda blossoms, tracking lifetimes of relationships.
The Madonnas of Echo Park is a timely and timeless read. It's timely because it confronts issues of immigration that are fueling heated debates today. It's a brilliant look at the lives of Mexican immigrants, and the hatred they face. It also demonstrates the value Mexican immigrants bring to America. The book is timeless because it reminds us how easy it is to marginalize whole populations of people. Whether it's Italians, Irish, Jews, Mexicans, or even now Islamists, we can't seem to stop focusing our hatred and disdain on those we consider outsiders.