A while ago, I heard this author do a very good reading, and decided to pick the book up. A couple days later, it was announced he'd won the PEN/Hemingway prize for first fiction, which boosted the book to the top of my TBR pile.
The Madonnas of Echo Park is a series of cross-sections of Mexican American lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with family and neighborhood threads that arc over the twentieth century. The book is a member of the burgeoning new genre of novels told through intersecting and overlapping short stories (like Olive Kitteridge or The Size of the World). I'm increasingly finding myself pleased by this format, which does everything a novel should in terms of world-building but allows the reader to inhabit multiple characters.
Characters range across the spectrum of southern California lives: an illegal laborer who faces deportation if he doesn't do something shady for his boss; his ex-wife, a maid for rich Hollywood types; their daughter, who as a teenager witnessed a gang shooting of a 4-year-old girl; a racist bus driver; a jolly ex-con; etc. My favorite story (of course, with my friendship fetish) was the one featuring two (female) best friends who fall out but can't forget each other--it rang true on many levels for me. I imagine individual readers will have a particular favorite based on what resonates for them.
I recommend the book particularly for the homage it makes to strong women (as implied by one of the several ways of interpreting the title). The stories are both accessible and touching, a necessary addition to American literature in the (very unfortunately) rare depiction of Mexicans in America--the often unrepresented fifth or quarter of US population. (Why haven't I encountered more books about the experience/history/culture? Any recommendations?)