It is the summer before senior year, and 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval, the protagonist of this well-crafted novel, is excited about his summer job, taking care of the ponies at his school’s therapeutic riding stables. His father, a partner in a powerful law firm, however, thinks that Marcelo is too coddled — and wants him to enter the real world ASAP. So they make a deal. If Marcelo successfully works in the law firm’s mail room for the summer, he can choose to return to his school. If he does not, he will be mainstreamed into the large public high school in the fall.
This is a book that refuses to be forgotten. It is a story that dares the reader to be a better person. Marcelo is not your typical protagonist. He has an Asperger’s‑like disorder. His affect is flat and he understands that he cannot read facial expressions or internalize some complex emotions. Stork integrates what is different about him — he listens to internal music, lives in a tree house, and prefers to discuss his special interest, religion — with what makes him like us. Marcelo longs to feel safe. He wants to be liked. He wants to be helpful and successful.
Of particular interest to Jewish readers are the tough ethical issues central to this novel’s surprising plot. Although he is not Jewish, Marcelo meets weekly with a local female rabbi to study Torah and other Jewish texts. His understanding of Judaism and morals is literally put to the test when he discovers a photo of a young woman injured by the negligence of his father’s law firm’s most powerful clients. Unraveling the mystery surrounding this girl is exciting, and Marcelo’s keen understanding of man’s responsibility to those who are suffering will stay with the reader. When he finally decides what to do, his own coming-of-age journey toward self discovery truly begins. Francisco Stork takes us into the thoughts of this transforming character, surprising the reader many times over. Nothing — even the possibility of love — is overwritten.
This book is a fulfilling experience. It offers readers an excellent discussion about morals as well as expectations, family, faith and the definition of success. Ages 12 and up.
Editor’s Note: This young adult book has two reviews due to the nature of the subject and the personal experiences of Nathan Weissler, our second reviewer.
Marcelo in the Real World features seventeen-year-old Marcelo Sandoval who has traits strongly resembling Asperger Syndrome (AS), an autism spectrum disorder. Marcelo is deeply upset when his father, Arturo, pressures him to attend public school in order to learn about “the real world.” Marcelo reluctantly agrees to work for his father in the law firm’s mail room over the summer. This book shows us that those with disabilities desperately want to be part of society but really need our support. In the absence of such support, people like Marcelo will suffer serious bullying. Marcelo suffered serious harassment at the hands of Wendell, another young man whose father works in the law firm. Thus, teachers using this book in the classroom can use it as an anti-bullying tool. Marcelo is Catholic, but he has a generalized special interest in religion — particularly Judaism. He knows a rabbi who is an important mentor to him. They discuss topics together such as the existence of G‑d.
I would recommend this book for 13 – 17 year-olds. There is danger in younger children finding amusement in Marcelo’s discomfort and Wendell’s behavior and replicating the bullying behavior. However, if read at the right age, this book will help non-special Needs people of all ages to be more emphathetic. It will also help those with disabilities realize that they are not alone.