Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Choose One: Safe vs Real

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S; recommended mainly to Gr. 9+

Wow. I started hearing raves about this book months ago from people had received ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies). I told one of my patrons about it and we've both been waiting impatiently for it to finally be published. Now that it's come in, I understand the high praise. It was worth the wait.

Marcelo doesn't operate in the world the way most people do. His condition can't be precisely defined, but he falls somewhere along the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He has difficulty expressing himself and reacting spontaneously. It's easy for him to get overloaded by visual and aural stimuli, and it's hard for him to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. He is obsessed with music and religion. Marcelo knows exactly how he wants to spend the summer before his senior year: working with the horses at Paterson, his school. It's the perfect job for him. Working with animals is easier than dealing with people, and Paterson is a quiet, safe environment. He'll be interacting with kids like himself and the teachers and staff members who work with them. His needs will be understood and nobody will challenge him. But his father has other plans for him. Arturo has never really accepted Marcelo's diagnosis or believed that Paterson was the best place for him. He thinks it's time for Marcelo take his place in the real world, where he'll be challenged, not coddled the way he is at school, so he's arranged for Marcelo to work in the mail room of his law firm. And he thinks Marcelo should attend the local high school for his senior year instead of returning to Paterson. Marcelo is resistant, but he has to admit that his father has always been fair to him and he thinks he can trust him (if trusting him means believing him). He reluctantly makes a deal with his father: If Marcelo works in the mail room and succeeds in following the rules of the real world for the summer, his father will let Marcelo decide which school to attend in the fall. If he doesn't succeed, Marcelo will attend the local high school.

Marcelo's experiences at the law firm range from comfortable enough to deeply upsetting. Though he knows that his boss, Jasmine, wanted someone else to get his job, she is patient with him. She doesn't overwhelm him with talk and she trusts him to do the job properly once it is explained to him. It surprises him to realize by mid-summer that they've actually become friends. But there are other people who are less willing to accept Marcelo's idiosyncrasies, and they make it difficult for him. And Wendell, the son of the other partner in the law firm, intends to take as much advantage of him as he possibly can. Marcelo's been warned about Wendell, and it's advice worth heeding. Wendell wants something from Marcelo, and he makes it clear that if Marcelo doesn't come through for him, he'll make sure Marcelo comes out on the losing end of his deal with his father.

It's stressful enough for Marcelo to have to deal with the demands, both work-related and interpersonal, of his job. But his stress level gets unbearably high when he comes across information about a major lawsuit the firm is a part of and realizes that the world isn't black and white and neither are people's motives. What should he do with this information, and what will it cost him in the end?


Many things come into play in this beautifully written book, including friendship, love, trust, sex, good vs evil, and morality. Almost all of it worked for me. Whether it's by having Marcelo explain his own thought processes or in his conversations with his mother and his rabbi counselor/friend, I loved the way Stork illustrated how Marcelo perceives the world and why things that seem unworthy of remark to most of us cause Marcelo to question them. I was rather fascinated by how his mind worked and by what processes he arrived at conclusions. In an odd way, I felt privileged to be given this entry into his world.

I appreciated exploring the dynamics of Marcelo's various relationships. I just this moment realized that the people Marcelo finds easiest to relate to (his mother, his sister, his rabbi counselor, Jasmine) are all women. He's perplexed by his father and frankly frightened and confused by Wendell. Hmmm. I wonder if there's any significance to that.

Without going into specifics, I have some quibbles. I felt there was an inconsistency between what Jasmine says and what she does, mostly in regards to Vermont issues, and some of the scenes in that section of the book felt somewhat out of place with the rest of the book. And despite the growth Marcelo makes over the summer, I still felt that certain things play out too patly in the end, which made me change my initial rating from a 5 to a 4.

I'd recommend this book to high school readers, who will most appreciate Marcelo's struggle with moral dilemmas and following his own dreams vs his father's, and relate to his attempts to understand interpersonal relationships, including sexual ones. It will require a somewhat patient and mature reader who enjoys books that have as much to do with interior events as with outside action.
It is also a book that I would have no hesitation about recommending to adults, whether they self-identify as appreciators of young adult literature or not.

Quote: The world will always poke you in the chest with its finger.

That line really struck me when I read it. I liked the insight it gave into Marcelo and perfectly illustrates that he sees the world as threatening and oppressive. But in the larger context, it's just such vivid, evocative imagery.

There were other things worth quoting, but I had to give the book to my impatient reader before I really had the chance to search through it again for things I didn't write down when I should have!

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