I know that there are people in the world who don’t believe that a young adult book can also be a great literary novel. There are books I would suggest to these skeptics, books that are shelved in the YA area that could just as easily wander over into the adult “Literature” section and be comfortably at home. Many times, these books manage to make the leap over, books that resonate across the generations such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I just finished another book that transcends the YA genre into the world of Simply Great Books that anyone of any age should read.
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is narrated by Marcelo, a seventeen-year-old boy whose father makes him a deal: if Marcelo works at his father’s law firm for one summer—following all of the rules of the “real world”—Marcelo may return to the private school he’s been attending for his whole life. If Marcelo fails to complete the job and follow the rules, he will be required to attend a regular high school, a fate Marcelo dreads.
So why has Marcelo attended a special school for all of these years? Well, that depends on whom you ask, and it’s an ambiguity that Stork hits dead on, a tightrope walk that’s only one of the impressive feats of the novel. To his son, Marcelo’s father acts as if the special school has been an unnecessary crutch for a perfectly healthy—if slightly quirky—boy. Yet early in his time at the law firm, Marcelo discovers that his father has described his son as having a “cognitive disorder.” Other law firm colleagues use less generous labels. When his new co-worker Jasmine asks Marcelo to describe this “cognitive disorder,” Marcelo—puzzling over his father’s words—tells her the term isn’t accurate. He tells her that, “From a medical perspective, the closest description of my condition is Asperger’s syndrome…[but] that term is not exactly accurate” (55). Indeed, there is no “term” that is an exactly accurate definition of Marcelo. Nor is there a “term” to characterize Marcelo’s father or Jasmine or Rabbi Heschel or Wendell Holmes—the other young intern at the law firm (though I’d hazard to diagnose this last character as a Certifiable Jerk). And that’s one of the beauties of Marcelo in the Real World. Marcelo tells his story, but he leaves much in the hands of the reader, which is just how we want it.
Marcelo in the Real World is about society and discomfort and religion and love. The real world Marcelo finds is not always pleasant or welcoming. It’s often unjust. Marcelo—who has a “special interest” in religious texts of all kinds—thinks of Jesus’s advice to “Be in the world but not of the world,” yet admits that “I have not the slightest idea how to accomplish that or even if it’s possible. The world will always poke you in the chest with its index finger” (201). Aside from containing one of the most apt metaphors I’ve ever read, Marcelo’s reflection stems from the fact that his new job proves far more complicated than he could have expected. There are good and wonderful things—especially Jasmine, whom I adore—but there are also rough things, things far uglier than a law partner who calls Marcelo “Gump” and an intern (see jerk diagnosis above) who wants to use Marcelo to get Jasmine onto his boat for less than upstanding purposes. These other things force Marcelo to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.
This is a novel about making a decision, a choice in which there is no clear path and negative consequences in every direction. As Jasmine points out to Marcelo, “Every time you decide, there is loss, no matter how you decide. It’s always a question of what you cannot afford to lose” (169). No matter who you are, you know what it feels like to face a tough decision and you will be right there cheering and worrying along with Marcelo. There are, however, some decisions that aren’t so difficult; picking up Marcelo in the Real World is one of them. I’m so very glad I did, and I suspect Marcelo and his story will stay with me for a long, long time.
[Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. New York: Scholastic, 2009.]