Marcello In the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

March 24, 2010

read by Lincoln Hoppe

Listening Library, Random House, 2009

Finished: March 19, 2010

Source: Jenny’s Books

Genre: YA issues novel tackling multiple issues

On the Scales: Lightweight

Hi, commenters.  Reader’s Request next time.  I wanted to post this one while it was fresh in my mind.

Marcelo is looking forward to senior year at Paterson, his private school.  In the mean time he has lined up his summer dream job at Paterson’s therapeutic riding stables.  Marcelo’s father, a high-profile patent lawyer, thinks Marcelo should switch to public high school because it will make him act less weird if he rubs elbows with normal high school kids.

So Papa Arturo exercises the eternal parental prerogative.  He proposes a “deal” with Marcelo that is no deal at all: Marcelo must spend the summer working in Arturo’s Boston law firm instead of at the stables.  If Marcelo refuses to do this, he must go to public high school in the fall.  If he works at the law firm and his performance meets Arturo’s standards, Marcelo may choose where he goes to high school.  If his performance at the law firm doesn’t satisfy his father, he must go to public school.

Beside the fact that it is rigged, I had several objections to Arturo’s deal.

1. As if, by senior year, there was enough time left for it to make any material difference where Marcello went to school!

2. Arturo springs his proposal on Marcelo a few days before he’s arranged for him to start work at the law firm, which seems devious and self-serving.

3.  Correct me if I’m remembering this wrong, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned what (or if) Marcelo would get paid?  What’s more real world than a paycheck?

I liked this book, and eventually found Arturo a sympathetic character, but I just hate it when parents do that thing. Better to say, “You’re going to work at the law firm this summer,” than to frame your command as a bargain between equals.  That’s an abuse of power.  If you exercise your right to have your will over child’s, but frame it as something else, you are taking away your child’s right to protest your decision and try to change your mind.  And Aurora the mom is not much of a mediator.  So, not an auspicious beginning, for me.

The audiobook reader was decent but really slow.  No doubt this was Lincoln Hoppe’s interpretation of Marcelo’s character, but for me a laggy reading widens the gap between reading silently and reading aloud even further.  It obscures the author’s pacing–so important in a YA-length novel.  I also think it was just a bad choice in terms of character.  Marcelo has something resembling mild Asperger’s, but while the plot hinges on this fact, Marcelo coping with his brain stuff is not the point of the book.

Verbal tics aside, Marcelo could be any sheltered, odd teenager.  His hurdles could be anybody’s, growing out of innocence.  This made Marcelo in the Real World different from “into the mind of an Autistic” type books I’ve read.  For me, the best way to approach it was not to think of Marcelo as someone with a specific condition.  Marcelo himself muses about how he feels when people try to find a clinical term for What He’s Got.  Among other things he feels guilty because he understands the suffering that goes with more severe Autism, because he’s seen it at Paterson–as if he were claiming a pain to which he had no right.

His concern is typical of mature, balanced Marcelo, whose “special interest” is pondering religious and moral questions.  Marcelo is a likable guy even at Lincoln Hoppe’s snail’s pace.  He was even kind of funny–it didn’t come across in the audio version, but I bet it would have done in print.

Many of Stork’s readers will know a teenager who, like Marcelo, is not in step.  My half-brother is one of them.  I thought Marcelo’s insider-but-also-outsider descriptions of “special interests” and “internal music” were compassion-inducing alternatives to obsessing, perseverating, and zoning out.  When you have a real reason to use them, terms for Asperger’s-type behaviors quickly become tinted by the frustration and anxiety of the helpless observer.  Marcelo is like a local guide: great at showing us how a place might inconvenient for tourists but has its compensations for the people who live there.

Then again, Marcelo is imaginary.  I’m wary of wish-fulfillment endings when I read books featuring characters with cognitive or developmental disorders.  They are so easy for authors to fall into.  Stork dodged the bullet because he was able to convince me Marcelo’s difficulties were moderate enough that he might actually hit on an achievable life-plan while he was still in high school.  I was also willing to accept that he was personally appealing enough to find the right person and right place to help him make those plans a reality.  But it was a close call.

I first heard about Marcelo In the Real World at Jenny’s Books.  Jenny found something a little disturbing in the way his Asperger’s-or-whatever-it-was got treated like something he only needed to grow out of (paraphrasing freely, here).  I got that too.  Mostly I objected to the idea that a mail room job in a law firm qualified as the real world, or that Marcelo’s interactions with slimy, believable Wendell Holmes (loved the name for the character) would be what set off the sudden growth spurt!  Or even Jasmine.  I enjoyed her, but she wasn’t alive to me.

I liked the writing, I liked the dialog.  I liked the Rabbi, but not the nuns or Aurora.  The social activist / humanist stuff went a bit overboard.  That’s personal preference: it makes me uncomfortable when doing the right thing is dramatized in a certain way, but I can say with conviction that Stork did a good job of writing the book he set out to write.

My favorite bit of dialog was near the end, when Marcelo asks Jasmine if Belinda was a better worker than Marcelo.  Jasmine says that Belinda was faster, but whatever Marcelo did, he did well.  (Again paraphrasing.)  Marcelo accepts this and muses, “in the real world, faster is better.”

And I thought, “Ah ha!  Living in the real world is a choice.  You can live with the idealists instead.  You can live with the nuns.  You can live in your music.  You can live in backwoods Vermont.”

I’m glad I don’t live in the real world.

4 Responses to “Marcello In the Real World by Francisco X. Stork”

  1. Jenny said

    Hahaha, if you only knew how much I like to hear that I’m right. 😛 I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt a smidge uncomfortable with the author’s use of autism-thing as a plot device.

  2. aartichapati said

    Oh, I’m sad this didn’t work for you. I wonder if that has more to do with the audiobook’s slow reader? I always wonder that about the (admittedly very few) audiobooks I’ve listened to- if I would have felt differently towards them if I read instead of listened to them.

    But it sounds like other things bothered you, too. I think the Asperger’s treatment would upset me as well.

    • trapunto said

      I think a lot of my problems had to do with the reader, and possibly also the fact that I was threading my loom and weaving while I was listening, so I listened in really long sessions.

      But I did like it. I should be more careful to say that up front!

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