Book: Marcelo in the Real World
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Marcelo likes his life just the way it is, thank you. He has his routine all set. He's going to spend the summer training the therapy ponies. Then he's going to spend his senior year as he has his last eleven--at Paterson, his special private school that understands and works with him on his Asperger's-like condition.
Then his father throws all his plans for a loop. Marcelo is not going to train therapy ponies. Instead, he is going to spend the summer in the mail room at his father's law firm--and if he doesn't fulfill expectations, he's going to spend his senior year at the local public high school. His father isn't trying to be cruel. He's trying to educate Marcelo in the ways of the real world, the world he's been able to hide from for the past seventeen years.
But the real world is full of traps and pitfalls even for the people who spend all their time in it. Before the summer is out, Marcelo will discover that the good and evil exist together in ways that all his religious studying has never prepared him for, and that the only way to find the right path is by discovering where his own faltering steps lead him.
Although Marcelo is on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, there's no doubt he's on that spectrum. He is a baby chick, newly hatched from the egg, but a chick who is painfully aware of how much he doesn't know. He has very little natural sense of others' emotions, deception, or other such ulterior motivation. Rather than using it to make him naive and bumbling, Stork has Marcelo aware of that deficit and consciously attempting to work out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some things, such as Jasmine's resentment over Marcelo's presence, are obvious to us but take a great deal of sussing out on his part. Others, such as Wendell's hidden motivations, are less clear to anybody. As a reader, it forced me to look at everyone more carefully. What were they hiding? What were they lying about?
Overall, this is a novel about moral choices, and how difficult it can be when the right choice may hurt people you love. Marcelo struggles most with the revelation that his father has made and continues to make morally suspect choices, and yet he's not a villain.
The Holmeses are almost cartoonishly bad, but they do have real power that can be wielded against the people Marcelo cares about, and in a novel where simply distinguishing good from evil is a skill to be learned along the way, more complexity in the overt villains might have muddied the waters.
One element that I loved is that Marcelo and his family are Latino, but that is simply the way they are. The question of ethnicity comes up in one discussion with the pompous Wendell Holmes, and the family background is touched on every now and then, but it's not central to the novel. Nobody's trying to either suppress or get in touch with their heritage in this novel, and it's not about the Nice Brown People vs. the Evil White People. Stork reflects a world more complex than that.
I didn't feel as if the second half of the book was quite as strong as the first, but overall this was at least as good as advertised, if not better. For a novel with such a unique protagonist, Marcelo in the Real World illuminates a painfully familiar experience for everyone.
This review is part of Color Online's Color Me Brown challenge.