Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World

I am totally smitten with this book.

First, I have to tell the story of how I came to read it. The book and its author, Francisco X. Stork, were in no way on my radar, until someone suggested I read Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, which is a how-to on writing middle grade and young adult novels. (It is infuriatingly detailed – if there is a problem in your text, there is probably a solution in The Magic Words. It’s very helpful, and completely exhausting.)

Anyway, Cheryl edited Marcelo, and uses it repeatedly in the examples in her book. I enjoyed the excerpts, learned from her description of its revision process, and was generally interested in reading the book.

Two years later, I finally did. And I am so glad I did.

First, the disclaimer: this is a YA novel. As in many YA novels these days (though this one is already 10 years old), there is foul language, and some pretty crude descriptions of various male-female interactions. Consider yourself warned.

Marcelo in the Real World is about a young man entering his last summer of high school. He is on the Autism Spectrum, though he doesn’t fit into any of the more specific diagnoses, and he hears “internal music” in his mind. He has always gone to a special school, and plans to spend his summer helping train some of the horses that the school uses for therapy. His father, however, has other plans.

Marcelo’s father is a powerful lawyer, and wants his son to be able to function in the “real world,” not just the protected world his school creates for its students. He offers Marcelo a deal: if Marcelo can work in the “real world” – at his father’s law firm – for the summer, he can go back to his beloved school. If not, he will transfer to the local public high school for his senior year. Marcelo gives up his summer plans and takes the deal.

At the law firm, Marcelo encounters a whole new realm of challenges. He works in the mail room, and his supervisor, Jasmine, has to find ways to help him do his job as well as he is able. Marcelo is faced with questions he has never faced before – how does he know who is his friend? How can he choose one friend over another? One good over another? How can he know what is the right thing to do?

Marcelo finds a picture of a girl whose face has been scarred by a shattering windshield – a windshield made by a company represented by his father – and this raises the most desperate questions of all.

As Marcelo puts it, “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?”

Will Marcelo try to find a way to help the girl in the picture, even if it means hurting his own family?

No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it and find out.

Now, as to why I loved this book. It’s the first one in a very long time that I’ve stayed up at night to finish. There really is a lot to love.

First, Marcelo is wonderful. His voice is totally unique. It’s a little jarring at first, because his speech, and even his thoughts, are so formal. But I found I got over the awkwardness very quickly, and was delighted to hear his frank descriptions of life. For example,

“You said that if I follow the rules of the real world this summer, I will get to decide where I go next year. Who will decide whether I followed the rules? I am not aware of all the rules of the real world. They are innumerable, as far as I have been able to determine.”

I feel that way all the time. Marcelo offers a different perspective on the “real world,” and I am grateful for it.

Second, there are some wonderful supporting characters. The scene where Marcelo meets Jasmine’s dad in his barn would be laugh-out-loud funny, if not for the fact that it is Alzheimer’s which makes her dad so ornery and foul-mouthed. With that knowledge, it comes off as bittersweet. Marcelo’s friend and confidant Rabbi Heschel is also larger-than-life. I’d want to sit and discuss the great questions of the universe with her, too.

Finally, the thing I liked best about this book was that it attacks heavy questions head-on. Marcelo’s “special interest” is in religion. His family background is Catholic, and he talks about praying the Rosary with his grandmother and the picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in her room. He is interested in other religions as well. His dog is named Namu, after the beginning of a Buddhist prayer. He often visits Rabbi Heschel for long talks about God and about life.

These talks are some of the gems of the text. In one, Marcelo tries to understand a co-worker’s desire to go to bed with Jasmine. The rabbi’s explanation, going back to the Garden of Eden, encompassing how everything, including sex, was created good, and how the Fall disrupted the goodness, is thoughtful, insightful, and beautiful.

Marcelo cares deeply about good and evil. His time in the “real world” forces him to decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for what is right. In a bookscape (is that a word?) where 90% of protagonists show no sign of faith or religion whatsoever,* a book that discusses faith, goodness, and conscience so eloquently is a treat indeed.

My inclination is to add this book to my list of “Great Catholic Novels.” Despite the fact that the author may or may not be Catholic (he doesn’t mention his own religion anywhere that I could find), and despite the fact that Marcelo himself has a crisis of faith by the end of the novel, and seems to subscribe to bits of various religions all along…the spirit of the story fits what I would want to see in a “Catholic” novel. (And we can discuss if Catholic Novels must be written by Catholics, or about Catholics, or doctrinally sound, and all the rest of it, another time.)

However you might decide to label it, to my ears, Marcelo in the Real World sounds all the right notes.

*A necessary footnote: Angie Thomas’ best-selling The Hate You Give falls in the other 10%. Starr’s family is Christian, and they pray together at the beginning of the day. It’s simple and real, and was one of my favorite parts of that wonderful book.
In Middle Grade, The Inquisitor’s Tale also takes kids and their faith seriously, and is highly recommended.

Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction. 

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)