Seventeen-year-old Marcelo Sandoval is different than most teenagers, and most people for that matter. He has a cognitive disorder similar to mild autism that allows him to hear “mental” music, or music that comes from within himself. Marcelo likes to call it internal music, or the IM. To no chagrin of his, the condition has kept him at the sheltered Paterson, a private school for kids with special needs. His mother Aurora has always been supportive of Marcelo attending Paterson since he has always thrived there, but his father Arturo is less so, constantly pushing Marcelo to become part of the “real world”. As summer is set to begin and with it Marcelo’s job caring for the ponies at Paterson, Arturo presents him with a proposition: work at his law firm for the summer, successfully following all the rules of the real world, and Marcelo may choose which school he wants to attend his senior year. If not, Arturo will enroll him in the public high school in the fall. And so Marcelo begins work in the mailroom with coworkers Jasmine and Wendell, the son of Arturo’s partner, seeking that elusive connection with the real world.
Languishing on the to-be-read list for I’m ashamed to say how long, I’ve always earnestly meant to read Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Little did I know that I would be the fortunate recipient of a signed copy this year, which made my excuses for not picking it up disintegrate almost immediately. Still, I let its lovely cover, which reminds me of one of my favorites covers of last year (I’ll Be There) unobtrusively stare in my direction until I felt that the timing was right. And as is often the case, I’m so glad that I did.
I wasn’t sure what to think when I first met Marcelo during his semi-annual brain test with Dr. Malone in the opening chapter. For something as incomprehensible as the IM, it’s understandable that thoughtful, usually precise Marcelo is at a loss for words. But then he comes up with the watermelon metaphor to describe his relationship with the IM, and I was both impressed by his wit and left anxious for the growth which would follow. Marcelo’s contrasting child-like innocence and superior cognitive skills make it difficult for any reader to not become completely endeared to him. While he may be a math whiz, he has a hard time reading facial expressions or understanding figures of speech. I fell in love with this voice, which is unique and memorable. As you can expect it made for some interesting relationships between Marcelo and the people around him. Jasmine and Marcelo’s friendship, despite a somewhat rough beginning, is simple and sweet, exactly the sturdy foundation he needs. Upon closer inspection Marcelo’s relationship with his father is complicated, and I appreciated the gray shades of Arturo’s character. Although it can be heartbreaking to watch Marcelo experience the harsh realities of life it was rewarding to see him finally touched by the suffering of one girl and be inspired to action. He has a long way to go but for someone who’s lived a protected life Marcelo develops tremendously throughout the novel. I will not forget his strength and courage nor his compassion. Overall Marcelo In The Real World is sensitive, unsentimental, and beautifully real, a YA contemporary novel I would never hesitate recommending. I can’t wait to read more from Francisco Stork.