Marcelo in the Real World

At the beginning of Marcelo in the Real World, 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval is leading a life that is safe, contained, and uneventful. He is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, though he does not have Asperger’s, so he attends a special school where he is shielded from the outside world. He enjoys working with horses, and plans to spend his summer—and potentially the rest of his life—taking care of the Haflinger ponies at his school’s stables. His father, however, believing that Marcelo is capable of much more, wants his son to work with him at his law firm: that is, in the “real world.”

The book takes place over the course of Marcelo’s summer in the real world, which ends up being a time of awakening, not only to adult responsibilities, but also to the occasional ugliness of adult relationships. In three months, Marcelo learns more about jealousy, competition, and injustice than he has learned in his entire life. He makes friends—like the fair but no-nonsense Jasmine, who helps him both with his tasks in the firm’s mailroom and in his personal development—and enemies—like the conniving Wendell, the son of Marcelo’s father’s partner, who, believing Marcelo to be slow-witted, attempts to use him in his various schemes—and ultimately learns that the person he must be most reliant on is himself. He discovers what it means to fight for what he believes in, even at the risk of alienating the ones he loves. In short, he learns that the “real world,” though complicated, uncertain, and often very ugly, is a place of rich possibilities and great fulfillment.

This book was beautifully written, so much so that it almost seems a shame to classify it as young adult literature. I believe that adults can appreciate it just as much as teenagers (maybe more), but I fear that few will discover it because of its categorization. The inside flap claims that it is “reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and I only wish that it had been marketed the same way as that book. Marcelo in the Real World is touching, challenging, and profound: it is a universal story that feels absolutely genuine, both in its characters and its situations. Marcelo Sandoval is the type of narrative who, through his keen observation, his clear voice, and his unwavering kindness, draws readers in and inspires them. He is memorable, and will linger in one’s psyche even after the book is over.

I think many of the unexpected, but perfect, details are really what help Francisco Stork’s book capture the essence of real life. For one, Marcelo, at the beginning of the novel, hears internal music, which, he later clarifies, is actually “the feelings of music without the sound.” This IM, as he calls it, immediately qualifies him as different. Different, that is, but very, very special. This music is an effective marker of Marcelo’s development: early on, he can conjure it at any moment, but later, when he is entrenched in the politics of the law firm, he finds he can no longer hear the music at all. The neat analog of this is that Marcelo discovers his new friend Jasmine is a budding musician, improvising her own melodies on a keyboard in her tiny apartment. And so, in a way, the music returns.

There are many other such examples of Stork’s keen eye for detail, such as Marcelo’s special interest in religion, which has him quoting religious texts at inappropriate times and engaging in deep, philosophical conversations with his good friend, Rabbi Heschel. Then, of course, there is Marcelo’s Mexican heritage, which is important but nicely understated. Stork does a great job of illustrating the unique struggles of being a Mexican-American in a high-powered corporate law environment without letting it dominate the rest of the story. At the end of the day, Marcelo is just Marcelo, as complex and unpredictable as anyone. He is completely believable as a unique human being, which is what makes his story so powerful and enduring.

It seems all-too-rare that a book, or a movie, convincingly portrays the mental processes of someone who is, to steal a line from the excellent Temple Grandin biopic, “different, not less.” I was impressed by Stork’s ability to create a narrator who is in no way a caricature. His treatment of Marcelo is respectful but also realistic: he understands Marcelo’s strengths and his limitations, and he allows him to make choices that are true to his character. If you like this book, I would also recommend catching the movie Adam, starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, which also deals with a high-functioning autistic man trying to navigate the “real” world. (And, if you missed it, Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes.) Such fictional representations, while perhaps not completely accurate, still do a great service to people who are misunderstood merely because they perceive reality differently. As we find in Marcelo, sometimes a different perception of reality simply means that one can perceive it more clearly.

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