Marcelo has a cognitive disorder similar to a very high functioning form of Asperger’s Syndrome. He goes to a special private school for kids with disabilities, but his father, a powerful lawyer, wants him to learn how to live in the real world. He pushes Marcelo to spend a summer working at the law firm in the mail room, to give him “real world” life lessons. Marcelo doesn’t really want to do this. He wants to spend the summer working with the horses at his school, but he gives in because otherwise his father will send him to public school for his senior year. While at the law firm, though, Marcelo learns a lot more about the “real world” than his father expects, and those lessons aren’t necessarily good ones.
I first heard about Marcelo in the Real World back in the summer of 2009, when my friend Debye lent me a bunch of library magazines before we went to ALA together. There was an article about this book and I immediately put it on my TBR list. Several months later, it started showing up in the blogosphere and suddenly everyone seemed to be reading it! I got it around Christmas last year, but it’s taken me nearly a year to open it up and actually read this book. Maybe I was a little worried, because this book seems to be universally loved, and I didn’t want to end up disliking it.
I didn’t need to worry. While it took me awhile to warm up to the book, I never disliked it. At first it was interesting, but I was on the fence about my feelings. Marcelo is a difficult narrator because he doesn’t process things the same way we do, and Stork wrote him absolutely convincingly. I didn’t like Marcelo’s father, I felt like the decision to send Marcelo to the law office was a bad one, and there was nothing about the story that completely grabbed me. Then we met Wendell, the other law partner’s son, and a real disgusting human being at that. The things that Wendell wanted to do…well they were so horrible that I sat there reading, holding my breath, hoping Marcelo would make the right decisions and learn to see Wendell for what he truly was. I still think it was absolutely wrong for Marcelo’s father to throw him into an environment like that and leave him to his own devices, unprepared and naive. I never, ever warmed up to Marcelo’s father, who was a complete jerk the whole book in my opinion. But I warmed up to Marcelo himself, and to his mother, and to the woman he works with in the mail room, Jasmine.
What I didn’t realize going into this book was how much focus of it would be on religion. Marcelo talks about people on the autism spectrum and how they usually have a “special interest.” His special interest is in religion and God, not confined to any one denomination or branch of religion, but across the board, from Judaism to Catholicism to Buddhism. He studies the holy books and scriptures, and ponders what the meaning of life is according to the divine elements of the world. Much of the way he tries to understand the world around him comes back to his understanding of divinity. It’s how he processes the world.
It was an interesting book to read right now, because the question of religion in fiction is one I’ve thought about quite a bit over the last week or two. Back 100 or 150 years ago, in English lit anyway, there was often the assumption that characters would be Christian, but the fact that they’re Christian doesn’t make the books religious fiction. Jane Eyre, for instance, is constantly quoting scripture at Mr. Rochester, but no one thinks of Jane Eyre the book as Christian fiction. There’s a line between the reader and the character, and the character is given freedom to practice his or her religion as he/she sees fit.
Now, though, it seems to be different. Religion is usually either left out of the equation altogether, or it becomes a central focus of the book, either in problem or solution. There is religion in Christian fiction (obviously) but religion seems to be a no-no for mainstream fiction, even with a hard line between the reader and characters. It’s as if these days, a character can’t be religious without a reader feeling like his or her own spirituality is being called into question. We don’t feel that when we read Jane Eyre. We know Jane is Christian, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. Why is it that way in modern fiction then? It seems the only time I ever see religion addressed in mainstream literature (be it Judaism, or Sikhism, or Christianity, or Islam…etc) is when there’s a MESSAGE to get across. Even in this book, the only reason it’s okay for Marcelo to address religion is because he’s different, so we don’t expect him to follow the same rules.
It’s an interesting thought to ponder, and what I thought about most as I read this book. There are so many other things in here, moral dilemmas and the nature of attraction and understanding others and corruption in the law system, but it was really the religious aspects that struck me most of all. In the end, it was a very powerful book, with a satisfying if not perfect ending. It’s very well written and like everyone else seems to, I highly recommend it.