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Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

I bought Marcelo in the Real World for its beautiful cover. Isn't it gorgeous? I love the warm light in the treehouse, the cool sky full of stars, and the two black silhouettes walking hand in hand. The title is wonderful as well and, having read it, I can't think of a better one for this lovely book. And we might as well go ahead and acknowledge that Francisco X. Stork has got to be the best author name I've come across in ages. Seriously. Put the three together and I don't see how you can not pick this one up.

Marcelo (pronounced mar-SEL-o) is different from other 17-year-old boys. He has what doctors and other "normal" people call a cognitive disorder. As Marcelo is constantly forced to explain to people, the closest thing his condition can be likened to is a mild form of Asperger's. But that is not what Marcelo would call it. Certainly not a disorder. In fact, Marcelo experiences a heightened sense of order. The way he sees the world is governed by a rigid set of principles self-imposed to help him function and make sense of the often baffling people and predicaments that surround him. His mother has always been supportive of his interests: an obsession with religion in all its forms, the tending of ponies at the private school he attends, the treehouse room he lives in outside his family's home. His father, on the other hand, has a few problems with Marcelo. He offers him a deal. If Marcelo agrees to work at his dad's law firm for the summer, he can choose which school he'll attend his senior year--the public high school that intimidates the hell out of him or the private academy for other kids like him where he feels safe and accepted. Backed into a corner, Marcelo agrees and enters the real world.

This book had me from the beginning. Despite his inhibitions and seeming inability to express emotion, Marcelo is an entirely sympathetic character. I thoroughly enjoyed following him from safe haven to real world, even though it was periodically extremely painful to watch him stumble through social interactions he had no preparation for and deal with ruthless people who had no understanding of him and no inclination to acquire any. I loved the simple, almost imperceptible way Marcelo and Jasmine became friends in the copy room and I loved Marcelo's theological debates with his friend Rabbi Heschel. There is nothing flashy about this story. It builds slowly and organically, in such a subtle way that several chapters later you find yourself looking up suddenly at the clock, wondering where the time went. A favorite passage:
I walk to my desk and read the paper that Jasmine has given me.
12:30 P.M. Copying, collating, binding
1:30 P.M. Walk over to federal courthouse to file documents
2:30 P.M. Scanning
3:00 P.M. Mail sorting
3:30 P.M. Filing system and file retrieval
4:30 P.M. Last mail run (stay away from Martha. Her condition worsens as evening approaches.)
5:00 P.M. Time to head for home (You made it through the first day of Camp Mini-Hell. Consider seriously not subjecting yourself to this and stay home tomorrow.)
Aurora once told me that she knew I was different within the first few months after I was born, because as a baby, I never cried. She had no way of knowing if I was hungry or if my stomach hurt until I was old enough to point and talk. Even when I fell and it was obvious that I had hurt myself, I did not cry. When I didn't get my way, I would go off by myself and sulk or have a tantrum. But I never cried. Later, when I was eleven and Abba died, I didn't cry. When Joseph, my best friend at St. Elizabeth's, died, I didn't cry. Mabye I don't feel what others feel. I have no way of knowing. But I do feel. It's just that what I feel does not elicit tears. What I feel when others cry is more like a dry, empty aloneness, like I'm the only person left in the world.
So it is very strange to feel my eyes well with tears as I read Jasmine's list.

Great, huh? There's really no way not to fall in love with Marcelo. His story is layered and full of compassion and I would not be at all surprised to find it on my Best of 2009 list. Recommended for fans of Madeleine L'Engle, Meg Rosoff, and Lisa Ann Sandell.

Comments

  1. What a very sweet book! And the cover is beautiful. I would have picked it too.

    And with my compliments award

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  2. What a GREAT passage! Totally makes me want to read that.

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  3. I knew I wanted to read that. :)

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  4. I'll put it on hold at the library.

    Also: Last night I stayed up until 2am reading Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta! I remember your blog was where I heard that she had a new novel out. Just updated my own blog (finally... after years and years of laziness) with a review on that. :)

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  5. Jenny Girl, why thank you! You are so sweet.

    Elisa, yeah. This was the first scene that made me tear up. It was not the last.

    Carrie, you do want to read it. I shall bring it to you at our first London Market meetup. When is that again? :)

    lasrisas, yay for JELLICOE ROAD! Totally a stay up late read. I agree with your review. I tend to love YA books about smart teens I want to be like. :) And I loved Taylor/Griggs. So much.

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  6. Oh man, not another one for the TBB list!


    :sigh:


    Yes, of course another one.














    (thanks)

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  7. I'm so glad you read this one, Angie and that it's a potential candidate for your Best of 2009 list. How could I not read it after that statement?!

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  8. ALady, sorry! Lol. Anytime.

    Christine, I really loved it. It was...calming to read. Not many of the books I read are that. :)

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  9. Anonymous2:08 PM

    I have a problem with this book, and with a couple of other books like it. Would you mind if I picked at it one your website? I'm not a regular commenter. I found you a couple of weeks ago when I was googling another book you reviewed.

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  10. Anon, feel free to talk about it here! What's bothering you?

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  11. Anonymous12:38 PM

    Oh, thank you. I don't like to rain on someone's parade, but I really feel conflicted about this book and about the praise it is getting. I read it because (oh, okay, because of the beautiful cover) of the review it got from bookshelvesofdoom.

    This was my response:

    So long as you don't know anyone on the autism spectrum, you are going to find this book warm, thought-provoking and enriching.

    And it really, is. But . . .

    If you do know something about Asperger's or Autism, you are going to wonder how someone like Marcelo can experience so much emotional growth. He is affected enough to have trouble with personal pronouns and struggles to understand emotions. He appreciates facial expressions that are easy to read, but by the end of the book he senses reproach in his father's voice and can suddenly deal with "gray areas" and uncertainty. Marcelo says he doesn't have many of the typical attributes of Asperger's, but that just seems like Stork trying to have his cake and eat it, too. Marcelo has Asperger's, but you know, don't hold me to any details.

    Emotional growth in your main character is fundamental in a story, isn't it? How can you have an arc without it? But emotional growth, of the kind that neurotypical people would recognize, is exactly what you Don't Get, out of autism. So what is an author to do?

    If he'd portrayed Asperger's for real, I don't know if he would be getting such good reviews. What Marcelo shows us is that autistic people have feelings, too. Which is nice, but it does so by suggesting that Autistic people are really just like everyone else underneath, which is disappointing.

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  12. Anon, you're not raining on any parade! You know I found myself wondering about that very thing a few times while reading the novel. I wonder how much research Stork did into real people with Asperger's and would be interested in hearing him talk about that. I did read an interview with him in which he discusses his own bipolar disorder and belonging to a support group made up of young people suffering from several different kinds of mental disabilities in his younger years. He says they certainly influenced the writing of Marcelo. I'm not sure he necessarily asserts that autistic people are the same as everyone else. I guess I came away with the feeling that they are different, but not in the way the majority of people think they are, if that makes sense. As you say, I do not personally know anyone with Asperger's so I'm sure I viewed it in a rosier light than others who are more informed than I. And so I'm very pleased you shared your response so readers have a more realistic perspective when approaching the story. It's a beautiful book, if more hopeful than it is realistic.

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