Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Marcelo In The Real World

Marcelo in the Real World by Fransisco X. Stork

Published 2009 by Arthur A. Levine Books

312 pages, YA contemporary fiction.

 Marcelo (pronounced Marselo, not Marchelo) has an Asberger's-like condition.  He struggles to express and understand emotions, but he is wonderful with the ponies at the special school he's attended for years.  He hears something like music in his head, and religion is his "special interest."  He lives in a treehouse in his backyard, which among other things allows for one of the more beautiful covers I've seen lately.  And his father insists that he take a summer job in the mailroom of his Boston law firm.

Good thinking, Dad.

Stork uses Marcelo's voice to narrate the story, and he does a beautiful job at capturing it.  A story like this is perfect for examining all sorts of social norms and expectations, because a narrator like Marcelo is an outsider by nature.  He questions and struggles with everything from jaywalking to professional competition to the barrage of sound in your average gym.  He has a child-like lack of understanding of how the world works, but a sophisticated approach to figuring it out and analyzing the confusion he feels.  Somewhere between Harper Lee's Scout and Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Rainman, he misinterprets some things, ignores other important clues as to what people are thinking and feeling, yet is absolutely heroic in his determination to make sense of a world he finds baffling.

He is also a genuinely kind human being, one you immediately start rooting for.

The book starts with his father attempting to make him work in the mail room AND sign up for public high school for his upcoming senior year, both of which horrify Marcelo, who already has a summer job lined up in the stables at his beloved private school for special kids.  Arturo, his father, makes him an offer--if he can successfully complete a summer in the law firm, Marcelo can choose for himself which school to attend next fall.  Arturo expects Marcelo to be invigorated and "normalized" by his summer job, and to choose the public school.  Marcelo expects to be miserable, but is game to give it his honest effort if the payoff will be finishing high school at his old school.

As a reader, I was conflicted about this.  Yes, I want Marcelo to develop confidence and learn to navigate the world (on his terms), but his dad is obviously kind of an asshole who is ashamed to have a son who's "different," so I also want Marcelo to buck Arturo's plans.  Stork's writing is so confident that I knew I didn't have to worry; in setting up this confusing conflict, he knew exactly what he was doing.  He would take Marcelo on a journey that would ultimately be satisfying, whatever he had in mind.

The book took a turn I wasn't expecting, with Marcelo going all undercover whistleblower sleuth on shady dealings at the law firm.  He makes friends with a guy universally described as an a-hole, and with a girl universally desired for her beauty, and is, at least initially, unable to see them the way others do.  He questions his own specialness, and like Adam and Eve, loses his innocence as he comes to see his own culpability in the wickedness of the world.  As I suspected, Stork leaves Marcelo in a place that is less safe than what Marcelo hoped at the summer's start, but less "normal" than what his father had hoped.  He matures in ways unexpected by either.

Oh, and the aging farmer with Alzheimer's and his Vermont neighbors are kind of a hoot.

4.5/5 stars.  I will definitely be seeking out other works by the wonderfully named Mr. Stork.

When I bought a copy for my class, this cover was two bucks cheaper.  I'm kind of regretting being such a skinflint about it though.  I do love that starry blue sky on the original.  Still, the lack of hand-holding might make it an easier sell for boys.  What do you think?

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