Summertime for Marcelo Sandoval doesn’t come with the usual fun: leisurely days spent in his treehouse, for one, or afternoons tending the Haflinger ponies at Paterson, the special school he’s always attended. Under the direction of his father Arturo, Marcelo will be leaving the safe haven of his comfortable world and working several months at Arturo’s law firm. Out in the “real world.”
Seventeen-year-old Marcelo has an Asperger’s-like condition that prompts him to hear private “music” in his head. He struggles with communication, speaking always in the third person, but thinks endlessly about religion — his area of “special interest.” Marcelo knows all about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism — and isn’t afraid to discuss it with others. Whether they wish to converse is another issue, but Marcelo definitely has the knowledge to impart.
Arriving at Arturo’s law firm throws Marcelo into a world where nothing is easy or without ambiguity. It’s there that he meets Wendell, the entitled, womanizing son of another firm partner. Under Wendell’s “direction,” Marcelo is introduced to concepts like sexual attraction and reciprocity, at least as far as doing work-related favors is concerned. Gone is Marcelo’s sense of black and white, right and wrong — but in marches Jasmine, the gorgeous young woman who runs the firm’s mailroom. Marcelo joins her in making copies, filing documents and chattering with the lusty secretaries, many of whom have noted Marcelo’s good looks. But once they realize he’s a “retard,” as some callous coworkers call him, their opinions change.
Marcelo is far from handicapped, though it’s true that he doesn’t think like many of us. Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo In The Real World is a surprising, compelling and quietly moving story that had me thoughtfully turning the pages to try and “see” what our narrator sees: a world filled with complications I’d never thought of; a place of people who say one thing and mean another; who have lost their sense of moral rightness. And Marcelo? Marcelo sees everything.
What I loved about the novel was our hero’s sweet, gentle questioning of so many things we take for granted as “the way it is.” From his first-person vantage point, we really get inside Marcelo’s mind — and are forced, through his narration, to take the world on his terms. While I spent some of the book wishing I could look on Marcelo from another view, that wasn’t possible — and by the end of the book, I had really grown attached to his voice.
Jasmine, too, was quite a character for me — a perfect blend of sweet and salty. Leaving behind a hard-scrabble life in Vermont, she arrives in Boston with a chip on her shoulder. Marcelo is just the person to find her and mellow her out, though even he can’t completely wipe away the past. Bonded through their mutual love of music, Marcelo and Jasmine get to know each other well through the course of the novel. And though I spent much of the story wondering how she felt about him, their friendship continues to grow — and I had tears in my eyes during certain passages. My favorite moment, and quote, in the whole book:
“I stay up listening to her fall asleep, feeling how it is not to be alone.”
Coming up against that quote was, for me, the equivalency of slamming into a brick wall. All the air left my chest. It was a tender moment, a quiet moment, and those words are simple and unadorned — but it’s so perfectly stated and perfectly in character for Marcelo, so crystallized and genuine and real. For all Marcelo’s worrying about whether or not he can love or feel desire, no desire is more perfectly expressed than in that one sentiment. (And breaking the fourth wall for a moment: I was so desperate to find that quote that I went outside in tropical storm-level rains to grab my copy from my car. I’m now typing with very wet clothes, but I did it. I did it for you.)
Religion plays a major part in the story, but it’s never heavy-handed or condescending; I didn’t get any remote message that any one faith is “right” while others are “wrong.” Marcelo often goes to see a female rabbi to discuss life and God, and I found their talks inspirational. When Rabbi Heschel realizes there is so much sadness, hatred and longing in the world that Marcelo simply doesn’t understand, she comments that it breaks her heart to have to tell him. And that really hurt my heart, too — like destroying the imagination and unguarded innocence of a child. Marcelo isn’t a kid, to be sure, but he’s so . . . good. Honest. Who would want to explain hatred to him? Or rape?
The novel did lose me a bit as some of the more pressing moral dilemmas are introduced. Though I understood the need for them in the narrative, I couldn’t help but feel as though they were a bit . . . dull. Marcelo’s desire to help someone he’s never met, though, is a perfect indicator of his newfound ability to think outside himself — and feel something. Really feel something. So I don’t begrudge the book for that.
Fans of young adult fiction will enjoy Marcelo’s coming-of-age story, a realistic and different glimpse into one teen’s life. And though the ending was a little too pat for my tastes, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love the rocky journey to reach that solid ending. I’d make the trek again in a heartbeat.
4 out of 5!