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.

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