Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Marcelo in the Real World" by Francisco X. Stork

Summary: Since he was young, Marcelo has attended Paterson, a school for children with learning and physical needs.  Marcelo's condition is similar in some ways to Asperger's; he has difficulty with social interactions and has consuming "special interests" that appear odd to others.  However, Marcelo's father Arturo has always believed that Marcelo could operate in the "real world" if he only he tried, so he makes a deal with Marcelo.  Marcelo may remain at Paterson if he takes a summer job at Arturo's law firm; otherwise, Arturo will force Marcelo to attend public school in the fall.  At the law firm, Marcelo befriends Jasmine, the director of the mail room, and learns more about the "real world" than he ever imagined.

Musings: After a glowing review from Reading in Color and favorable comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I was eager to pick up Stork's work.  What I found was a sweet and touching book that had me totally engrossed.

Stork does an excellent job putting the reader in the mind of Marcelo.  Marcelo has been taught how to operate properly within the "real world," but he does not do so naturally.  To appear "normal" takes concentration and effort.  This is one of the reasons Arturo wants Marcelo to work at the law firm. Paterson has created a safe atmosphere that adapts to fit Marcelo's needs, but the school has not forced Marcelo to adapt to a world that will expect him to fit in.  Without being forced outside his comfort zone, Marcelo may have a hard time finding success in "normal" environments.  This is Arturo's primary argument; it's a difficult and heartbreaking one, but it's also realistic.  At the same time, Arturo is a jerk, and he makes this argument in the form of an order rather than a discussion.  Nevertheless, one of the joys of the novel is seeing how Marcelo develops as he works at the firm and must adapt in order to navigate the complex social relationships of the work place. As he works longer, Marcelo becomes more adept at interpreting emotion, understanding casual language, and reacting to others' ulterior motives.

However, progress always means giving something up.  In becoming a member of the "real world," Marcelo loses some innocence and comfort of his disorder.  Marcelo also must come to terms with the hurt and failures of the world.  Fortunately, Marcelo has Jasmine to help him in this territory.  Their relationship is touching and gentle, and I loved the way Jasmine and Marcelo were able to understand one another.

Marcelo in the Real World touches on important issues like the treatment of those with disabilities, the objectification of women, the impacts of race and nationality, and the meaning of suffering through the eyes of Marcelo, which helps the reader understand those issues in new ways too.  It's optimistic without being cheesy or false.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (completing the "Bad Bloggers" category).

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