Ever since Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork was published in 2009, I have been hearing rave reviews of it. I finally got around to reading it last week and found out what all the fuss was about! It’s a warm, funny, and insightful novel written from the perspective of a young man on the autistic spectrum.
Marcelo is 17 and facing the summer before his last year of high school. His doctors have never been able to exactly pin down his diagnosis, so he just describes it as something close to Asperger’s syndrome, though he is considered high-functioning. He has attended Paterson, a school for kids with a wide variety of disabilities, for many years, and he feels comfortable there. Marcelo is excited about his summer job, helping to care for the horses used for therapy there, and he is looking forward to learning enough this summer so that he can help to train the newer horses in the fall. Marcelo’s dad has other ideas.
Arturo is a very successful lawyer with his own partnership. He wants Marcelo to work there this summer, in the mailroom, so that he will learn how to succeed in the “real world,” as he puts it. His hope is to show Marcelo that he’d be better off mainstreamed in the public high school in the fall rather than at Paterson. They agree on a compromise: if Marcelo works in the mailroom this summer and “succeeds” (i.e. accomplishes the tasks he is given), then he can make his own choice about which school to attend when the summer is over. Marcelo is not happy about his new summer plans, but he is determined to do well.
His new boss in the mailroom, Jasmine, is not happy about Marcelo working there, either. She’d already handpicked her assistant, and now she is stuck with the boss’ son instead. Wendell, a Harvard law student and the son of the other partner at the firm, seems to be welcoming, but Marcelo isn’t quite sure whether he is a genuine friend or whether he is sometimes making fun of him. As Marcelo works hard to adjust to the “real world,” he tries to apply all that he learned in his social interaction classes at Paterson so that he can succeed, by his father’s definition. Along the way, he discovers something that no one else at the law firm seems to know about and is faced with a serious ethical dilemma for the first time in his life.
I don’t normally include so much plot description in a review, but this book was so wonderfully engaging and unique that I want to tell you all about it. Marcelo is a warm, funny, likeable narrator, and the ethical question he faces is a difficult one with no simple answers. It’s gratifying to see Marcelo learning to navigate relationships and gain self-confidence and independence, and it’s fascinating to see the world through his eyes and to understand the challenges he’s facing. I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading more from Francisco X. Stork.
312 pages, Scholastic
NOTE: If you enjoyed this book or are interested in other novels dealing autism, you might also enjoy the middle-grade novel Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin.