Marcelo in the Real World

By Francisco X. Stork

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009

312 pages, hardcover.

Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear — part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify — and he’s always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm’s mail room in order to experience “the real world.” There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm.

He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside. ~Publisher’s Comments.

It is on my mind that a book might not overcome my critical approach enough to enjoy a read or be so completely won over. Especially if the book is one lauded over and again. A book that everyone should read.

Sometimes I wonder if we see “deeply moving” and “highly evocative” attached to too many dust jackets. Marketers clutter? Or perhaps I have grown cool. A well-crafted story should ever be felt and imagined in a way that warrants the use of effusive literary descriptors. And yet I have grown to distrust seeing it so often; and possibly from wanting to use it too often (?).

I knew that I would like Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. I have people whose recommendations will have me attempting every read they send my way. Marcelo was recommended more than a few times. That Marcelo in the Real World affected me as much as it did, however, surprised me.

Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World truly is deeply moving.


I was ever in one emotional state or another; ever in the simultaneous state of dread and hopefulness. The conflicts that propel the story forward held me riveted. Marcelo was as riveting a character as any author could hope to create. There was another enthralling component as well. Stork was tapping on something that occupies my mind and explores it so beautifully: Innocence.

The daughter is 10 going on 11 (not 30). She has the intuitiveness that reminds me that children are brilliant observers and thinkers and they harbor a marvelous wisdom of their own. And still, she has the naivete that reassures me that she is 10. It is a precarious balance telling her about the world while helping her reside in innocence as long as she might. Marcelo in the Real World held all the longing of a parent for their child, and the inner conflicts.

“I don’t believe in suffering. If a kid is happy, understood, and appreciated, he will bloom in his or her own time.”—Dr. Malone (p.9)

“There are so many things I still have difficulties with. I cannot walk by myself in a strange place without a map. I get flustered when I am asked to do more than one thing at once. People say words I do not understand or their facial expressions are incomprehensible. They expect responses from me I cannot give.”—Marcelo (p.23)

“Maybe the reason you can’t do those things is not because you are not able to, but because you have not been in an environment that challenges you to do them.” –the father to Marcelo (p.23)

That the father might make some potentially valid points is hard to manage when he comes across as a real bastard most of the time. One takes his instructions to consider people’s motivations and applies the lesson to him. Depending on the lighting is to how reasonable he seems. Stork is incredible in his ability to maintain a lack of bias while portraying his characters in shifting lights wherein the reader develops bias, and confusion; Marcelo may not be the only one lacking signs of empathy.

Opening the book, it is anticipated that Marcelo will be different than the average Reader. He is medically recognized as such.

“From a medical perspective, the closest description of my condition is Asperger’s syndrome. But I don’t have many of the characteristics that other people with Asperger’s syndrome have, so that term is not exactly accurate.” […] I view myself as different in the way I think, talk, and act, but not as someone who is abnormal or ill. […] It is easier to say that AS best describes my differences. It makes people more comfortable to have a scientific-sounding term. But actually, I feel dishonest when I say I have AS because the negative effects of my differences on my life are so slight compared to other kids who have AS or other forms of autism and truly suffer.” (55)

Most (if not all) authors who would feature a protagonist with Autistic related conditions would impart the idea Marcelo shares: “I view myself as different in the way I think, talk, and act, but not as someone who is abnormal or ill.” Stork is spectacular in the way he takes it a step further. By the time page 55 comes along, the Reader is already being led away from the idea that Marcelo is all that different in the way he thinks, talks, and acts. Or perhaps, unfamiliar is the better word.

Marcelo isn’t endearing because he is charmingly ill and vulnerable in such a way that riles our instincts to protect and defend.  He is endearingly familiar, if not painfully so. Unfortunately, it takes placing him into the “Real World” with the rest of us to make us see it. His suffering doesn’t become our own, it is our own. He just words it better. “In some way, the strange-looking streets are simply a reflection of my thoughts. It seems perfectly natural to be lost outside when that’s the way I am inside. No landmarks anywhere.” –Marcelo (136)

By story’s end, Marcelo isn’t transformed out of Marcelo so completely as to comfort us and turn us into his father who would say there was nothing different about Marcelo to begin with; that he was just too sheltered. By story’s end, Marcelo has merely solidified a sense of commonality so that we have learned the same lessons as he (and still have hopefulness); that the definition of “the Real World” can be challenged, that innocence is precious, as is human suffering…


How Marcelo in the Real World resonated is not solely attributed to my parental preoccupations; incredibly, that was a small part. Innocence has a greater implication than just a protection of childhood; though I did find myself mourning such losses. The loss of innocence in the World on the whole has a devastating aspect as well. The novel has no longing for “the good old days” or an “aw shucks” idyll, but Marcelo has to wonder how far we have gone from Eden. By Eden, I mean a human’s “natural state.” Strip a human body of its cultural trappings and look at a base condition. Remove some of the societal rulings and some of the melodrama. Start with someone who is emotionally removed, who is intellectual, philosophical, whose interest, when peaked, is keen and unflinching. Endear the reader to this person and then send them out into “the real world.”

“The Real World” in Marcelo’s case is a Corporate Law Office aka shark infested waters; “You want to succeed here [at Sandoval and Holmes], you need to be merciless, go for the jugular” (173). It is sleazy and horrible and all the clichés (which really aren’t) were there. It was a perfect cutthroat environ in which to juxtapose Paterson, the school Marcelo has been attending, where learning at one’s own pace and respecting a human’s state is the way of life.

The Law Office environ is perfect for easily garnering audience disgust and aligning oneself with Marcelo. It also makes for creating conflicts in the areas the author might want to explore: let’s talk about sex and love; let’s talk about beauty (“Is that what makes a woman beautiful? That men look at her?” –Jasmine, 111); let’s talk about what is ethical and moral…let’s discuss the Rules.

“If only customs were logical. If only the rules were as simple as “Don’t do anything that will hurt others.” If that were the only rule, I’d have at least a fifty percent chance of getting it right. […] As it is, the reasons as to why something is right and something is not seem arbitrary.”—Marcelo (43)

Marcelo in the Real World is not message-driven, more exploratory, revelatory. Just the same, Marcelo would harshly interrogate and reject certain perspectives. In this way, Stork reinforces positive human and societal values.


How the characters are held in juxtaposition is essay-worthy. There is a particular loveliness in how Arturo (the father) and Marcelo (the son) are set against one another. And yet, how much alike they are; “Just then, you sounded very much like your father the lawyer” (34);  “I see his hands open and shut, the way mine do when I cannot find words for what I want to say” (289). With the likeness you can see how far Arturo has fallen from who he was; incrementally through small glimpses within the story. The trajectory is haunting, but does not taint Marcelo. Though alike in a lot of ways (and in valuable ways), Marcelo is not his father. There are other powerful influences, his own self, Aurora (his mother), the Rabbi…


There are many painful moments in Marcelo in the Real World. I was angered, outraged, disgusted, and brought to tears. The conversation at the end of chapter 12 was perhaps one of the most painful and moving occasions. Then the story slid into Chapter 13 and an utterly creepy exchange had my stomach roiling and pulse skittering anxiously.

In a lot of ways Marcelo becomes representative of so much more than just a character negotiating his way through life. I read him also as a character that I had become invested in and hoped for all the best the world of the book could impart. For all the thoughts provoked, the protagonist carries emotional currency as well.

For all the sensitivities with which Marcelo coincides, there is the acknowledgment of skill in the writing.

The story is extremely well-plotted. I was concerned when, in the escalation of the “legal drama” near the end, Jasmine and Marcelo go off for the weekend. Stork only proved, however, that he had thought this story through.  I could see how the ending could be rushed, but it wasn’t, because it was Marcelo. If I had to name a flaw, I would argue for pacing, but admittedly I would be fishing.

Stork’s sentences are clean, his voices are pitched perfectly, his characterizations appropriately complicated… I am marveling over how well-executed the story is without sacrificing any sense of the organic.

Stork maintains his Logic in the novel much to the angst of the protagonist and the reader. He doesn’t fudge it for the sake of his hero. Marcelo can’t go back. He has changed, has had to change. It isn’t that some of the changes aren’t good: acquiring empathy is important to the story: the love and sexual awareness parts aren’t wholly bad either. It’s just some of the knowledge gained doesn’t necessarily offer a happy ending. There is more pain in the offing.

I feel berated that I would even want the easy ending. I feel I should take the hopefulness Marcelo offers, that Ixtel offers (298).

Stork artfully illustrates why ignorance, though at times longed for, is not necessarily the way to go (e.g. marital infidelity, corporate negligence). He built it into the story and he carries it off through the end. We are not in Eden, and Marcelo, though connected more closely than most, wasn’t either. There were shadows he didn’t have reason to notice before…

“All I can think of now is that it is not right for me to be unaware of that pain, including the pain that I inflict on others. Only how is it possible to live without being either numb to it or overwhelmed by it?”(302)

Good question; an equilibrium for which we are all searching.


One of Marcelo’s interests is music (57); this too is an interest of Jasmine’s and those who share said interest would find connection with these characters and the story.

Marcelo’s “special [pervasive] interest is God. […] Religion. What human kind has experienced and said and thought about God. I like to read and think about that” (57). This is ideal story-wise and Stork is adept, and provoking. If God is on your interest radar, Marcelo is worth the read. The Rabbi is quite wonderful a character. And the situations in which Marcelo recalls scriptural contexts are nice, e.g. A conversation with Juliet brings to mind Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Meekness (173); Marcelo’s contemplation of “Be in the world but not of the world” (201); chapter 12 discusses Eden and the Tree and Adam/Eve (120)—lovely, lovely.

I think we could all use the reminder/epiphany about “ugly parts” (299).


the suggested age is 13-17…I would recommend this to any adult, but wouldn’t go younger than 13, even with a “mature” reader of 10-12—the maturity for this one benefits from something more than “excellent comprehension skills.”

Marcelo in the Real World slipped into the best reads of last year with a late exposure December 30/31st. Francisco X. Stork’s 2010 release The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is on the Concenter List. I forwent it temporarily to read Marcelo. I will be reading The Last Summer this year. I want to know if this a first love, or one that will last a lifetime.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

7 thoughts on “Marcelo

  1. L… you did an amazing job reviewing this book! I read this book last year April. Anyway, I loved this book. It spoke to me on so many levels, and I do believe you nailed those levels pretty good.

    Many of your quotes are fantastic, but the following in particular speaks to me greatly.

    “I don’t believe in suffering. If a kid is happy, understood, and appreciated, he will bloom in his or her own time.”—Dr. Malone (p.9)

    I really should post that quote in my house because on several levels it is very true, and important to remember.

    The Father; I know that many readers do not like him at all. They think he is harsh and uncaring. While I can see that, and don’t necessarily agree with him, I can see that he is in a tough position of life. He is in denial…believe it or not… and also has a mix of hope for his son within his feelings. He wants what is best but he cannot see the softer way of going for the best. I don’t know…he is not how I would want him to be, but I also realize that raising a child such as Marcelo is tough work, and not everyone approaches this raising in the same way. Bottom line, I think the Father could be more caring, but I also think he is doing what he thinks is best. I don’t care for him much but I also am not fully judging him either.

    Age appropriateness for this book… yes, I see what you mean for the age, but I am not certain that I would write my 11 year off from reading this book right now. I think it depends on the child’s life experiences, and a book such as this one may be a good read for her, and most definitely for the 13 and 15 year olds if they would read a book recommended by me. Anyway, while I would not approach my 11 year old with the book, if she showed an interest to read it right now then I would probably let her do so. Then again, she has a few life experiences that I do believe would help her with some of the content admittedly not all the content though.

    I am very curious about the author’s book, Summer of Death Warriors, and forgot that it was on my list to read. Thanks for the reminder.

    Again…you did a fabulous job reviewing this book. Almost makes me a bit envious that I did not go to the depths that you did…almost. 😉

    1. thank you.

      i agree with what you are saying about Arturo. I think he serves the story well in many respects and that he probably loves his son is not excluded. Arturo is parenting from what he knows, worried his is being retarded by a soft upbringing when the harder one has brought himself success. His misunderstanding reflects the greater culture. In a way, bringing his “retarded” son to work is extending himself, especially when he seems to have just let Aurora have the son (he already has a Daddy’s Girl in the elder sister). Much of Marcelo in the Real World is about Fathers/Sons. I think the text is much more compassionate toward Arturo than most readers, understanding there are complicated dynamics at work. Marcelo isn’t the only one caught in the middle. Arturo, too, is nicely placed between Garcia (Ixtel’s lawyer) and Holmes (the partner). … I could go on.

      I value your input on age recommendation. I do think experiences weigh in. I have some books where if the daughter approached it, I wouldn’t say no….but you can bet the minute she turns 13, this, Jellicoe Road, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be wrapped up nice and pretty beside the cake.

      1. I believe your insights to this story is fabulous. You are so right about Arturo, and that is where I come from in respects to how I look at him. Yes, this book is much about Father/Sons which adds to the depth of this story. It is not simply about Marcelo dealing with AS (or form of it), but life itself. The relationships were very interesting to me, but the most interesting aspect was Marcelo himself and how he learned, and is learning to deal with life.

        I do believe, and I hope I am not stretching myself here, that you and I are of the same thread in regards to books and our child(ren). Because of your insights, and knowing the love you have for sharing books with your daughter…I value your reviews greatly. By the way, the three books you listed to sit next to the birthday cake of a 13 year old…I have not read them, and I must change that fact.

  2. watching you read this book was difficult at best and after the amount of emotion and response it wrung out of you i didn’t expect you to be able to put together a post. the care of language and content you put into this review is delightful to see.

    over the past month with you reading this and N. reading Mocking Bird, i’m not sure i can deal with anymore books about kids with AS (or not AS as in Marcel’s case).

    1. thanks darlin’…it almost didn’t come together. i was fairly determined, though. i would like to revisit this one in a year. Is good essay material.

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