“I remember the conversation Jasmine and I had in the cafeteria. ‘The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong.’
‘Ha!’ [Rabbi Heschel] says. ‘Look.’ She opens the book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, flips through the pages, and reads. ‘Our effort is but a counterpoint in the music of His will.’
‘What if we don’t hear the music?’ I say.
‘That’s what faith is, isn’t it? Following the music when we don’t hear it'” (Stork 2009, p. 279).
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is simply, “Wow.” What an amazing, touching, heart-breaking, powerful book. Unlike The Book Thief and The Fault in Our Stars (both of which I adore), however, Marcelo in the Real World doesn’t have to kill off a single character to move me. This book made me ponder the very nature of humanity, something not many books have been able to do, young adult or otherwise.
Marcelo in the Real World, as you might expect, deals with many real world and difficult topics such as cognitive disabilities, infidelity, rape, and blackmail. The story is told from the perspective of Marcelo, a teenage boy with a cognitive disability similar to Asperger Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Though Marcelo is brilliantly intelligent, he has spent his entire life going to a school for children with cognitive disabilities, something his lawyer father hopes to mend for his final year in high school. Marcelo’s father makes a deal with him; if Marcelo can spend the summer following the “rules of the real world” at his law firm, then he can decide where to go to school next year. Marcelo reluctantly agrees, convinced that he’ll be able to choose his old school at the end of the summer, where he’s most comfortable. This, of course, doesn’t go as planned, as Marcelo begins to learn more about the “real world” he’s been avoiding his entire life.
The fact that Marcelo is one of the most innocent teenage characters I’ve ever come across in literature makes the story that much more interesting to me, as it allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of an innocent. When Marcelo meets Wendell, he is only concerned with befriending the conceited and spoiled son of his father’s law partner; he doesn’t immediately see that Wendell is playing nice in order to use Marcelo’s disability to his advantage. Wendell later uses this naivety in an attempt to blackmail Marcelo into hooking him up with Jasmine, a mutual coworker who befriends Marcelo on his first day at the firm. What Marcelo doesn’t realize, however, is that Wendell plans to drug and rape Jasmine, though he senses that Wendell’s intentions are less than pure. The story is a constant battle for Marcelo as he struggles to figure out the difference between right and wrong, navigating difficult circumstances he’s never had to face before.
One such circumstance soon becomes Marcelo’s sole focus, leading him to question everything he’s learned about the world so far. While organizing files for a case his father is working on, Marcelo stumbles upon a photo of a severely injured girl, a victim of faulty windshields produced by a company that Marcelo’s father (and the rest of his firm) are representing. Consumed by the image of the girl, Marcelo sets off on a quest to aid her, soon learning that the world is full of both horrible sadness and tremendous light. He learns, as we all eventually learn, that there is no such thing as black and white; there are many shades of gray in the world, and individuals are complicated. Marcelo, who has always seen his father as a kind and positive figure, has to contend with the fact that his father has also done some pretty terrible things in his lifetime, such as refusing to help the injured girl and cheating on his wife. Despite this, Marcelo learns to forgive as he begins to see humans as flawed beings who can make mistakes. Along the way, he is forced to question everything he thought he knew about the world and the people in it, leading to an incredibly profound and moving story.
My favorite quote from this book sums up the points I’ve just made fairly succinctly:
“Then it comes to me. It cannot be that this is the first time I realized this, but it is. We all have ugly parts… How do we live with all the suffering? We see our ugly parts, and then we are able to forgive, love kindness, walk humbly” (Stork 2009, p. 299).
This is both incredibly beautiful and full of truth, defining the very essence of humanity that we all share. This is the quote that urged me to add this book to my list of favorites, as it points out an inherent truth about the world: we might all have darkness inside of us, but it is the brief moments of light that make the ugliness and suffering bearable. Though Marcelo comes face to face with greed, deceit, and hatred, he also meets Jasmine, an intelligent and kind woman with a love for playing music. He meets the kind lawyer Jerry Garcia, a man who spends his time fighting to defend those without voices. His mother, Aurora, spends her time working with sick children to make their final moments brighter.
Though he discovers suffering, Marcelo is also able to see the good in the world during his journey, convincing him that entering the “real world” will be worth it in the end. This is a profound message, and one that should remind us all why we keep going even when the world seems bleak and dark. The book, as the above quote demonstrates, also brings up the issue of faith: both faith in God and in the goodness of humanity. As Marcelo begins to lose his faith in the divine, he finds it again in the goodwill of others, helping him to come full circle in his journey to join the “real world.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would encourage anyone interested by my (very long-winded) review to check it out. It’s a wonderful story of hope, resilience, and the moments in which we discover ourselves despite being faced with unspeakable darkness and tragedy. Much more than a book about a cognitively disabled boy who learns to live in the “real world,” this is a book about how a quiet, intelligent, and incredibly perceptive individual holds the power to change the world around him – a power that any one of us could wield to make the world a little brighter.
Stork, F. X. (2009). Marcelo in the real world. New York City, NY: Scholastic, Inc.