When you've got a narrator who says, "Suffering and death do not affect me the way they seem to affect others," (4.34) you know you're either dealing with a psychopath or someone with emotional processing issues. Luckily, in Marcelo's case, it's the latter.
This is a kid with Asperger's Syndrome who's spent years learning how to make small talk and read human emotions in body language and facial cues. He understands what others are saying largely through context. For example, he doesn't get it that someone's mad unless he goes through his checklist of stuff mad people do: "Even when she is angry, like at Juliet for example, you can tell that the anger does not affect her. The reason I can tell is that her breathing never alters. A person who is truly angry has physical reactions that last for a while, even after the event that caused the anger is gone" (8.27).
Those of us who don't have Marcelo's emotional processing issues get it pretty quickly when someone else is mad, and it's often because they make us feel mad, too. Or when they do something scary, we feel uncomfortable; we generally don't do those things ourselves because we don't want to scare people. That's because we've all got natural empathy that's easy to access.
But Marcelo? He doesn't quite grok the nuances. When Arturo tells him that quoting scripture will scare people, Marcelo pulls out a notebook and writes, "Do not pray so that others see M. pray. Do not quote scripture. Note: listen for religious phrases that have become figures of speech. Those are allowed even if not accurate" (5.56). If that's not objective, we don't know what is.
Given that Marcelo in the Real World was an honorable mention for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, judged by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, there's no question what genre it belongs to.
The two main characters, Marcelo and Jasmine, are 17 and 19 years old, respectively. Ixtel and Wendell are teenagers, too. The book deals with typical teenage problems—sex, parents, school, summer jobs—even though the narrator is anything but typical. Contrasting Marcelo with other teenagers shows us how different the lives of young adults can be, and isn't learning about other people's lives half the reason we read in the first place?
Marcelo in the Real World may be a mystery story, but the title's not mysterious at all. We learn what it means in the first chapter, when Arturo tells Marcelo he wants him to come to work in the law firm because he needs to learn about the real world. In Arturo's mind, Marcelo's been living a sheltered life at his special school, Paterson, and it's time to integrate him into mainstream society.
The "real world" means different things to different people, though. While Wendell's real world contains yachts and hotties, Jasmine's contains a senile dad and a dilapidated farm. Ixtel's real world is a convent full of nuns, and before that it was the life of an addicted orphan. Arturo's version of the real world is the law firm; Aurora's is children dying of cancer. But for the purposes of the book, "real world" means "not Paterson," and in that case, we're going with Arturo's definition.
Of course, by the end of the novel, Marcelo chooses his own real world—one that's in Vermont with Jasmine. It may not be the real world his dad wanted for him (although hey, at least it's not Paterson), but it'll do just fine for Marcelo.
We'll tell you what up: it's one of the most squee-inducing endings in YA lit. Finally, the moment we've been waiting for:
Then she looks at me in a new way. It is a serious and tender look I've never seen before, and I want to rest my eyes in hers for as long as I can. Then she walks to where I stand, and she kisses me softly on my cheek. (31.84)
Which is, of course, adorable, but what's really important here is the last line:
And when she steps out, I hear or I remember, I can't tell which, the most beautiful of melodies. (31.85)
Jasmine brings back Marcelo's IM, which is to say, she brings him back to the truest essence of himself. By understanding him and listening to him, she gives him permission to stop suppressing the way his brain really works and to be fully himself in her presence. If that's not love, then we don't know what is.
Francisco X. Stork, like Arturo Sandoval, is a Mexican-American lawyer who lives in Boston. Write what you know, right? Still, we think it goes a little deeper than that. But hey, we're Shmoop, and we like to think about things.
Boston's a great city, but it's also one in which class distinction is pretty blatant. Unless you're super brilliant and get a scholarship (which we highly encourage), it takes a lot of money to pull a Wendell and go to Harvard. Cambridge, the Boston suburb where Harvard is located, is uber-fancy, with big, expensive houses and pricey boutiques. But cross the Charles River and head south to Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood where Jerry Garcia's office is located, and you'll find a section of Centre Street known as the Latin Quarter. Although JP, as the locals call it, is also a funky neighborhood filled with artists, it's traditionally Hispanic. In other words, it's no Cambridge. You'll find great Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican food, but there probably won't be many squash games going down.
When Wendell strands Marcelo after lunch, Marcelo's in Chinatown. And when Jasmine comes to his rescue, Marcelo learns she lives there. As she takes him into her building, she says, "This used to be a dorm for medical students attending Tufts. Now it's mostly used by immigrants from Cambodia" (14.94). In other words, after the students had passed through and, presumably, become doctors, people with very little money moved into the cramped rooms indefinitely. Jasmine, who comes from a poor family, is one of the only white people living there.
The only time we leave Massachusetts is to go to Vermont, where Jasmine's family life is a big-time contrast to Marcelo's. Suddenly it's all Bud Light, fiddle tunes, and folks who think Kickaz is a good name. Amos's house, where Jasmine grew up, is so run-down that even the lawn ornaments have seen better days: according to Marcelo, "As we get closer, we see an assortment of plastic animals on the front lawn: a family of deer, two white swans (now grayish), a mother duck with six ducklings behind her (one tipped over), two rabbits kissing each other, a brown fox, a groundhog up on his hind legs, a flamingo that could have been pink at one time but is now a whitish color" (22.44).
Obviously, not all of Vermont is like this; there are certainly fancy houses and expensive neighborhoods there, too. But because Jasmine doesn't live in one, it's all completely alien to Marcelo. He might as well have touched down on Mars. So when he chooses, at the end of the book, to leave Boston behind and go back to Vermont with Jasmine, it's all the more profound. We see that Marcelo doesn't need fancy stuff; he just needs someone who really listens. All the money in the world can't bring his Internal Music back, but Jasmine can. If that means faded lawn ornaments, then see ya later, Boston—bring on the tipped-over ducklings.
Marcelo in the Real World takes a few chapters to really get going, but once Marcelo gets assigned to work with Wendell, the book takes off like a freight train. It's a quick and easy read, with no difficult language or boring characters, and it's got a real page-turner of a plot. If you like a great mystery, it's all here: good guys, bad guys, and even a clue discovered with a magnifying glass. Marcelo's like a 17-year-old Sherlock Holmes on the autism spectrum. And just when you (and Marcelo) really need it, Amos and Jasmine's neighbors step in for some comic relief. Add in the sweetest love story this side of The Fault in Our Stars, and Marcelo in the Real World is likely to keep you up way past your bedtime.
When you've got a character as interesting as Marcelo, why wouldn't you write from inside his brain? His internal music is reason enough to dive into his mindset whole hog. Because he sees the world so differently from other people, he helps us to see it differently, too.
One way Stork takes us into Marcelo's brain is by writing very formally. For example, Marcelo refers to himself and the people to whom he's talking in the third person. Instead of saying, "It's hard for me to look at women the way you do," he says, "It is hard for Marcelo to look at women the way Wendell does" (12.28).
And that's another thing: he doesn't say "it's"; he says "it is." Most people speak with contractions, so when Marcelo doesn't, it makes him seem almost robotic. Like when he says, "Suffering and death do not affect me the way they seem to affect others." (4.34) If you said that sentence, you'd probably say "don't" instead of "do not." It's a very formal, very alien way of speaking that sets Marcelo apart from the real world and the other characters who live in it.
There are so many horses in Marcelo in the Real World that if the book had a smell, it would be hay. (Yeah, we could have said something more disgusting, but we're classy like that.) The day we meet Marcelo, he's in a hurry to get out of that brain scanner so he can go meet the new foal at Paterson, which he gets to name. He's nabbed the job of stable boy for the summer, and it's perfect for him: "I will be in charge of the ponies' well-being. I will determine when a pony should be fed and watered and rested. I will be consulted by the instructors and therapists on which pony is best suited for a kid with a particular disability" (2.2). Sounds like a sweet gig.
We see right off the bat that Marcelo is passionate about horses and compassionate toward them. He wants to become a nurse like his mom Aurora and work with horses and disabled kids after he gets out of school. All he knows of horses is how they help people. But when he meets Jasmine, Marcelo learns for the first time that they can cause suffering, even death. The first time Jasmine really opens up to him is when she tells him, "I was angry at a horse for the longest time" (14.69). Turns out her brother was kicked in the stomach by a jittery racehorse and killed.
So wait a second. Are horses good or bad? Marcelo loves them, but Jasmine? Not so much. As it turns out, there's a little bit of good and bad in them, which becomes clearer when you consider the fact that in Marcelo, horses and moolah are oh so intertwined in oh so many ways:
• Marcelo learned to train posh Haflinger ponies at an expensive private school with an equine therapy program.
• Jasmine's brother James attempted to train a wayward Kentucky racehorse without any knowledge, because he wanted to breed it for money.
• The ponies at Paterson are given Austrian names because the breed comes from Austria.
• James, on the other hand, named his horse Kickaz.
Money, as we see throughout Marcelo in the Real World, can buy just about anything: yachts, private schools, expensive houses with big yards, and unscrupulous lawyers who will protect you when you hurt others. But if you don't have money, you can be disfigured by a defective windshield, forced to live with a mangled face, or killed by a horse you don't have the education to train. Because let's face it: if James had had Arturo for a father instead of Amos, he might have had Marcelo's education, and he wouldn't have been kicked by Kickaz. In other words, he'd still be alive.
To sum up, horses accomplish two things in this book: they point to Marcelo's compassion, and they also point to class differences that can mean the difference between life and death. All in a day's work for a symbol.
When a book starts and ends with music, you know it's a big deal for both the characters and the author. We feel safe in saying that Francisco X. Stork is both a Keith Jarrett fan and a classical music fan, given that Jasmine's hero is the former and Marcelo's favorite genre is the latter. Anyone who mentions Glenn Gould in his book probably grooves on some Bach himself.
But it's not all about the author being a fanboy. Let's go back to the IM, or Internal Music, for just a minute here. The music in his head is one of the most interesting things about Marcelo; after all, doctors don't just study any boring old brain. The fact that Marcelo's brain generates music as real as any outside tunes is so fascinating to Dr. Malone that he's spent years taking pictures of it and designing experiments around it.
However, as Marcelo goes from his sheltered world to the larger world, he finds that his IM is fading. It's not until Jasmine kisses him (shades of Snow White here, folks?) that he gets it back: "And when she steps out, I hear or I remember, I can't tell which, the most beautiful of melodies" (31.85). It's easy for us to tell which, of course: there's probably not a chamber orchestra that just popped up all of a sudden. He's remembering (which is what he's always called it when he hears the IM) an essential part of himself through interaction with someone else—someone who understands that part. It takes someone who really listens to him to allow Marcelo to listen to himself again.
Then there's Jasmine's CD collection. Her room is filled with them, and she gives one to Marcelo the first time he visits. She knows what CDs (and music) mean to him, so when she takes him to her room, she shows him her favorite Keith Jarrett joint. Marcelo sees Jarrett's bowed head on the cover and tells his new BFF Jasmine that Jarrett is "remembering," which is what he calls it when he listens to the IM and when he prays.
The response? "Jasmine takes the CD from my hand and studies it as if to see what I see. Then she puts it back in my hand. She turns and stands in front of me, and when she does that I suddenly feel like laughing" (14.113). Whoa. This real world person is actually attempting to communicate with Marcelo in his own language. His mind is officially blown.
CDs are also how Marcelo and Jasmine talk about Wendell's power plays. Marcelo says, "Jasmine asked me once if I was greedy about something and it must be that what consumes Wendell is like the greed I feel for a CD, only more desperate and reckless" (14.4). When Marcelo told Jasmine he was greedy for CDs, she said, "Well, when I'm around Wendell, I feel like that CD would if it could feel" (9.67). Message received.
If you're used to listening to music as MP3s—because let's face it, CDs are kind of ancient technology now—back up a minute and think about music as a physical object. When Jasmine puts her Keith Jarrett CD in Marcelo's hands, she's giving him an actual thing that he can take with him (as opposed to just sending him a song via email). When he holds it, opens it, and puts it in the CD player, he'll think of her. It's like she's handing over a little piece of herself, the piece she doesn't want to give to Wendell. (The way Wendell treats people is kind of like drooling all over a CD, shoplifting it, sticking it into your coat pocket with some old gum wrappers and used tissues, and scratching it the first time you play it.)
Promised land, anyone? Subtle Garden of Eden reference? Marcelo in the Real World, the sequel? Vermont could be all of these things.
First Marcelo enters the home of Jasmine's heart, then he enters her real home. All together now: awwww. But seriously, there's some major metaphor going on here. If Boston is the land of castes and cliques, Vermont is the untouched wilderness. It's where Marcelo and Jasmine will begin their lives together. It's where Marcelo will go to college.
But, as Jasmine reminds him, "What I want to tell you is that there are no places to hide, not anywhere" (31.69). In fact, she says, "You made me wonder whether my house-slash-studio was just a place to hide" (31.59). This is the kind of realization you may not have when you're Marcelo's age, but a few years later, when you're Jasmine's age, it becomes much clearer.
Jasmine's spent more time in the real world than Marcelo. She's seen more of the ugliness and cruelty of the law firm. In other words, she's more jaded. But she's still crying tears of joy that Marcelo wants to join her in Vermont. Sure, Vermont may not be all it's cracked up to be in Marcelo's head—and it certainly won't allow him to escape his troubles at home—but at least they'll be together.
For these two, Vermont is a place where they can define their own lives, and make their own choices. Marcelo can become independent from his parents, who—let's face it—aren't the most awesome authority figures in the world. And Jasmine can take care of her father while knowing that she also has a future all her own to look forward to—one with Marcelo.
In a book about class distinction, it's worth noting that Marcelo chooses to leave wealth for, essentially, poverty. There's the poverty that already exists, and there's the poverty that almost inevitably faces college students, which Marcelo will be, and musicians, which Jasmine will be. (This doesn't mean you can't fulfill your dreams of being a rock star; it just means you'll have to work really hard and probably eat some ramen along the way.)
But he's willing to learn to love faded flamingos, senile dads, and the Bud Light and fiddle music of the neighbors if it means he gets to be with the girl who brings his internal music back. He doesn't choose money, like Arturo; he chooses love and passion, for both Jasmine and horses, instead. And those things can be found in Vermont—not bigwig Boston. It's the son attempting to write the father's wrongs, and it's romantic as all get-out. Vermont, here we come.
While it might seem difficult for an author to write a book in the voice of a kid with language difficulties, Stork totally nails it. What better way to show us Marcelo's struggle than to let him speak in his own strange and beautiful words?
Stork gives us great insight into Marcelo's perception of the world when he says, "Even when [Jasmine] is angry, like at Juliet for example, you can tell that the anger does not affect her. The reason I can tell is that her breathing never alters. A person who is truly angry has physical reactions that last for a while, even after the event that caused the anger is gone" (8.27). Marcelo has to use logic to figure out feelings, which is completely alien to most of us. If someone gives us the silent treatment or the side eye, most of us can tell they're mad or annoyed. Marcelo can't, though, and when we see his struggles through his eyes, we're way more drawn in than if Stork just told us about him in the third person.
It's as if suddenly, our brains have to work like Marcelo's. And that's quite the change for most of us. But without that change, we wouldn't be able to experience Marcelo in the Real World they way we're supposed to—as Marcelo.
When we first meet Marcelo, we learn that his life is pretty good. He gets paid to have brain scans, and has a summer job training equine-therapy horses. Plus his parents are wealthy, and he lives in a swanky tree house. Seeing a family with so much invested (both emotionally and financially) in being upper-class gives us a big ol' sense of foreboding. We need to see that Marcelo's got a privileged life; otherwise, he's got nothing to lose.
Turns out Marcelo's dad Arturo, an attorney, wants Marcelo to work at his law firm for the summer. He'd also like it if Marcelo would consider going to Oak Ridge High in the fall instead of returning to Paterson; both the law firm and Oak Ridge represent the "real world" Arturo thinks Marcelo needs to experience. If that's not conflict, we don't know what is: Marcelo's being challenged to deal with people who don't get him, when he's spent his whole life quite happily surrounded by people who do.
While working at the law firm, Marcelo discovers a picture of a girl named Ixtel who was severely injured when the firm's biggest client, a windshield manufacturer called Vidromek, produced a defective product. We can't think of a much bigger crisis than losing half your face, but that's Ixtel's crisis. Marcelo's is deciding whether or not to do the right thing and tell Ixtel's lawyer that Vidromek knew about the defect in the windshields. If he tells, his family could lose everything, including the funds to send him to Paterson. If he doesn't tell, Ixtel will continue to live in pain, and that's not right.
After making the decision to help Ixtel rather than his father, Ixtel's lawyer, Jerry Garcia, takes Marcelo to meet her at the convent where she lives. She's wicked grateful (hey, this book takes place in Boston, we had to use their favorite adverb at least once) and gives him a kiss. Marcelo has finally done the right thing, and Sandoval and Holmes have paid the piper. Except for some thorny interpersonal issues with Jasmine, things in Marcelo's life are as they should be. He finally gets to process what he's learned, after a hard journey to learn it.
Marcelo's resigned to going to Oak Ridge, and even though he may not be thrilled about it, he knows he can deal. And even though Jasmine had shenanigans with his pops, Marcelo decides he can forgive her. And by "forgive her," we mean "move to Vermont with her and live happily ever after." Okay, so maybe happily-ever-after doesn't exactly exist in the real world, but Marcelo's discovered he can handle a few ups and downs. Especially if Jasmine continues to kiss him on the cheek and set off the string section in his brain.