Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
If you were to go into a bookstore to find Marcelo in the Real World, it would be shelved in the young adult section and while it is an excellent choice for young readers, (receiving 15 awards since its publication in 2009) it is also a story that will touch adult hearts and keep them turning pages to see how a 17-year old deals with a moral crisis that deeply affects the adults in his world.
As author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award Nominee, says so well, “Marcelo in the Real World is a mesmerizing coming-of-age story in the realest sense—leaving the Eden of an extended childhood and slowly awakening to the knowledge of good and evil both outside and within. Marcelo’s voice is at once innocent and knowing and the challenges he faces compelling. There were moments that made me feel as though I was seeing the world for the first time and along with Marcelo, wondering how it is to be endured.”
Marcelo Sandoval is a high-functioning, extremely self-aware teenager (17) with Asperger’s syndrome. He has led an ordered and protected existence in a Boston suburb with his empathetic mother, a nurse, and his high power attorney father. He attends a special private school, Paterson, where he takes courses in social interaction and works with therapy ponies. He loves Paterson.
But his father, Arturo, an ambitious Mexican-American who was top of his Harvard Law class, thinks Marcelo needs skills to survive in the “real world”. He strikes a deal with him the summer before his senior year: If Marcelo can follow the “rules of the real world” by working in the mailroom of the firm’s hectic office, he will allow Marcelo to return to his safe-harbor school for his senior year. If he fails, he must attend the public high school. The challenge is set and what happens that summer sets in motion a series of events that neither father nor son could have foreseen.
Marcelo’s inspiring and brave journey into the real world endears him to readers and in first-person narrative we are invited into his thought process which is so different, both innocent yet wise. Seeing the world through his eyes is one of the beauties of this story and we can feel both his anguish and his wonderment of the challenges life is now presenting him. The New York Times Review aptly describes his voice as one of “heartbreaking honesty.”
Marcelo is forced to think on his feet, multi-task and deal with deceptive people who try to take advantage of him, such as Wendell, the sex-obsessed son of his father’s slime-ball legal partner. He learns about competition, jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a photograph of a girl with half a face that truly connects him with the real world of suffering. Empathy for her is the stirring of his emotional coming-of-age and he is compelled to solve the mystery behind the face. His moral compass is then tested as much as his social coping skills when he uncovers a piece of suppressed evidence in a case involving his father’s biggest corporate client.
With the help of Jasmine, the beautiful mailroom employee who has taken him under her wing, Marcelo struggles to find the courage to do the right thing at the risk of betraying his father. And it is Jasmine’s inner goodness that is a striking contrast to the ugliness Marcelo has encountered in the real world.
Favorable comparisons have been made between Marcelo and Christopher Boone, the protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (Doubleday 2003) where both voices have an appealing blend of naïveté and wisdom.
Like Marcelo’s father, author Francisco X. Stork is also has of Hispanic descent and a practicing attorney in Boston. He was educated at Harvard and Columbia Law School and has written several books for young adults. And like Marcelo, he is still striving to find his “uniqueness”. He writes on his blog: “Writing for me is the best tool for that... and so I write for young people...to humbly walk beside them toward the discovery of our true self and the unique gift each one of us has received.”
I consider Marcelo in the Real World a true gift to readers.