Title: Marcelo in the Real World
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Audience: Ages 14 and up
Summary: Marcelo Sandoval, an autistic seventeen-year old, has come to the end of his junior year at Patterson, the special education school he has attended since kindergarten. His autism has not been accurately identified but it is marked by an inner music Marcelo hears, a lack of social skills, a need for an inflexible schedule, and an intense interest in God. Marcello is a practicing Catholic who meets regularly with a Jewish rabbi and names his dog from a Buddhist prayer. He has a job for the summer caring for the ponies in the Patterson stable. Marcello’s father , a driven, successful lawyer, has other plans: Marcello is to work in the “real world,” the mail room of his father’s law firm. If Marcello works successfully there, he can return to Patterson for his senior year; if not, he must go to public high school. The real world requires Marcelo to make “small talk,” learn to distinguish sarcasm, adapt to new situations, and follow a competitive law firm’s rules. And so Marcelo learns-to work with Jasmine in the mail room, to read the faces and intentions of co-workers, to find his way around Boston, to tell the social lie, to be aware of sex. The discovery of an injured girl’s picture in one of his father’s files jolts him into an action that may destroy his father’s law firm. The result of this action makes public high school mandatory and compels Marcelo to deal with suffering and God’s will for his life.
Literary elements at work in the story: Marcelo is a rich, multi-layered novel told in the first person. This unique perspective never varies as Marcelo tries to process figures of speech, grasp the real intent of a statement, deal with multiple stimuli, understand a discussion about girls and sexual attraction. It is a profound experience of a different point of view, of the strengths and handicaps of autism. Marcelo seldom uses pronouns, referring to himself and others by name. Several times undesirable language is used and some vulgarity is expressed but both are integral parts of the story and highlight Marcelo’s difference in the way he thinks about sex and life.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Marcelo’s father is Hispanic and despite his success still faces racial and cultural prejudice. Marcelo’s autism elicits ridicule and contempt. Wendell, a significant character, is sexist and exploitive. Rabbi Heschel and Aurora Sandoval are strong, compassionate women. The law firm is made up of successful males who compete, make money and use secretaries. Some characters are stereotypes but most are believable, vital persons.
Theological Conversation Partners: Because Marcelo’s keen mind sees most questions and events in religious terms almost every event in this novel has a theological slant. How do we pray, experience God’s presence, know God’s will? What is the purpose of suffering and how do we live with it. What is the purpose of sex in God’s creation? How do we know right from wrong? How can we talk about our faith in the secular world? These are a few of the questions with which Marcello struggles as he leaves the sheltered environment of Patterson for the law firm. His conversations with the rabbi about, sex, suffering, and finding God’s will require attentive, repeated reading.
Faith Talk Questions:
- What is the real world according to Mr. Sandoval? How does this contrast with Marcelo’s view?
- Jesus asks God not to take his followers out of the world (John 17:15) and Paul suggests to the Corinthians that they are to maintain contact with the world as Mr. Sandoval sees it. (1 Cor. 5:1) How do we and Marcelo bridge this gap?
- Marcelo calls his life of prayer “remembering.” Is this a good description? How would you describe your prayer life?
- What’s the difference between small talk and large talk?
- Marcello attempts to explain to Mr. Holmes how to control worry and anger? What do you think of his suggestion? Do you think Mr. Holmes understood?
- Marcelo’s father tries to explain to him how he can talk about religion in the real world. Is it good advice? How does it handicap Marcel’s communication?
- Marcelo asks Rabbi Heschel why Adam and Eve felt shame in the Garden of Eden when they realized they were naked. (Genesis 3:7) Is her insight about evil affecting the imagination an adequate explanation?
- Rabbi Heschel says that God speaks to us through urges that are painful. When Marcelo follows this urge that may hurt his father, her advice is, “Trust God. God will know how to use whatever hurt results for His own ends.” What do you think of “painful urge” as a term for God’s guidance? Do you think her advice is sound?
- Have you tried to discern God’s will as Marcelo does? How did you know?
This review is the last full review with faith questions in our series on teens and faith. For the next two Mondays, shorter reviews of six books will also be offered. Virginia Thomas is the writer of this series.