Posted in book review

{book review} marcelo in the real world

Title: Marcelo in the Real World
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Date of Publication: March 2009
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Marcelo in the Real World is a coming-of-age story touching on neurodiversity, ableism, racism, family, ethics, religion, sexuality, and love – in short, all the passion and philosophy of a teenager stepping into adulthood as experienced by a young neuroatypical Latino man. While Stork is not, as far as I can determine, neurodivergent himself, I find Marcelo to be relatable and authentic as a neurodivergent character: from his subtle stimming, to his sensory struggles, to his logical rules-based method for deciphering people, to his thoughts on life and faith and God. And, quite satisfyingly, the resolution of his story does not come with a cure or a fix for his differences: just an increased understanding of who he is and a vision for living in the “real world” as someone who doesn’t quite fit.

Marcelo’s story takes place the summer before his senior year in high school, when his father – a successful lawyer named Arturo Sandoval – decides he needs exposure to “the real world” (Arturo’s words) and finds a position for him in the mailroom of his law firm. The frame of the story, then, is in Marcelo’s emergence from the sheltered naïveté of childhood into the nuanced understanding of adulthood, knowing that his childhood environment was good for him but that he cannot stay a child forever. It is in growing up, not in “overcoming” his neurodivergence, that Marcelo changes as a character over the course of the book – which I think is an important distinction to make.

Marcelo’s relationship with his father is a key aspect of the book, and the fault lines within it begin to reveal themselves early on; it reflects the perennial struggle between the adolescent with idealistic dreams and the parent with pragmatic experience as well as the disconnect between the argument that one must fit in to certain social roles and follow certain (cutthroat, competitive, capitalistic) pathways to find success and the belief that happiness and fulfillment can be found in simplicity, service, and difference. In other words, even as Arturo attempts to do what he thinks best for Marcelo by molding him into a sharp, ethically gray, self-serving businessman, he struggles to conceal his deep disappointment in Marcelo’s disability, which comes out in subtle ways throughout the story.

Other characters are not so subtle in their ableism. Their most frequent assumption is that Marcelo is stupid because he is different, and that his stupidity makes it ok for them to insult him, take advantage of him, or attempt to manipulate him. And because he is trying to fit in, trying to please his father by appearing “normal”, and honestly struggling to determine whether people are being genuinely friendly, he lets a lot of inappropriate things roll over him without comment (one woman barely stops herself from calling him “retarded”, while one of the men tries to use him as a tool to his own ends.) I found his silent response very accurate to my own experience, where I often choose to ignore hurtful or bigoted comments for various reasons – and I found his inner response to be quite satisfying:

“It is very difficult for me to feel that I am not normal. Why can’t others think and see the world the way I see it?” – Marcelo in the Real World, chp 3

(I do feel the need to say that not all the characters are ableist, and one of the more moving moments of the story is when his supervisor makes him a scheduled list for his afternoon training – helping alleviate his anxiety and treating his processing needs with respect, even though she had wanted someone different to be hired in the first place. Instead of simply expecting him to change and adapt, she adjusted her approach to support him and did so without drawing attention to herself or fishing for gratitude.)

The challenge that is more significant to Marcelo (since his neurodivergence is, after all, just his own normal) is his inadvertent discovery that his father’s law firm – and thus his father himself – may not be handling their cases with complete honesty or with concern for what is right and who may be hurt. Should he prioritize loyalty to his father or commitment to the truth? Should he advocate for a person in need when doing so means sneaking behind his father’s back and losing something precious to him (which is at stake because of a bargain he made with his father at the beginning of the summer job)? Can he still love and respect his father while making choices that may hurt him? And finally, is does he need to ignore the needs of the vulnerable and oppressed in order to succeed? Is that the ethos of the “real world” that his father wants him to learn how to be a part of?

I’m not going to give away the answers Marcelo finds to those questions. You have to read the book and make that journey along with him! But I will say that at each step of the way, each time he is presented with a choice and weighs the consequences and examines his beliefs and takes a step in faith and hope, he becomes more fully himself. And I will say that through Arturo’s attempt to expose his son to his own “real world”, he ends up opening the door for Marcelo to discover the wider real world with all its brokenness, need, and hope – a real world that has room for people of all neurotypes, and a broader definition of success.

As a neurodivergent person myself, I appreciated the depth of Marcelo’s character and the respect Stork gave him in his writing. I’ve (attempted to) read fiction about autistic characters before where the focus is almost entirely on the “strange” behaviors – constant descriptions of stims or meltdowns. In this book, however, we see things from Marcelo’s perspective and so stims and sensory processing issues only come up as passing notes: the way they do when they’re a part of your normal life. Oh yep, caught myself stimming again, must be a bit anxious right now. Or, that was a difficult experience, a bit shaky and overloaded right now, need to step out to calm down. I also appreciated Marcelo’s blank response to one of the other character’s innuendos and objectifying comments. It reminded me of my own slow discovery (through books and overheard conversations) of what most people mean by sexual attraction, and his thoughts on love and his reasons for love and the way his attraction eventually grew out of that love instead of existing on its own really resonated with me and isn’t something I see a lot of in fiction.

One small concern is that Marcelo’s described experience of his story seemed disconnected in so many ways from the people around him – I can’t give any specific examples of this, but I felt it in the very style of writing used. Yet, even as it bothered part of me, another part of me identified with it. I do often feel like an observer instead of a participant, on the other side of a fence from the shared experiences I see around me. So while I worry that this might be perceived as a stereotype by some, it isn’t exactly an incorrect perspective.

Overall, Marcelo in the Real World is a solid young adult novel that deals with neurodivergence in a normalizing, respectful way – that allows a person with differences to wrestle with the same big ethical problems that everyone else encounters, to mature from the naivety of childhood to the vision of young adulthood, and to find that he also has the power to help others with gentleness and strength; and that shows how the “real” adult world has a place and purpose for even those people who can’t quite force themselves into that neurotypical mold.

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