Magazine article The Christian Century

The Right Note

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Right Note

Article excerpt

IF YOU ARE LOOKING for a great book to share with a young person this summer, I recommend Francisco X. Stork's Marcelo in the Real World. Marked by a combination of page-turning storytelling and theological depth, it is full of romance, mystery and a risky quest: everything you might want in a great summer read. At the heart of the book stands the question: What claim does the suffering of strangers make on us? Or as the book's main character puts it, "How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?"

Marcelo Sandoval is a 17-year-old looking forward to his senior year in high school. Living with something akin to Asperger's syndrome, Marcelo has spent his life learning step by step how to do things that many people learn intuitively: how to read facial expressions, how to interpret sarcasm and slang, and how to imagine what another person might be feeling or thinking. He's good with animals, hears music playing in his head, feels most comfortable adhering to a predictable schedule and, like many on the autism spectrum, nurtures a "special interest." Marcelo's special interest is God.

Marcelo pursues his interest by praying, studying holy books, going to mass and meeting regularly with his spiritual mentor Rabbi Heschel (she's no relation to Abraham Heschel, though she does loan Marcelo God in Search of Man). He is cherished by his family, his teachers and mentors, and the terminally ill children his mother cares for in a hospital.

His father, however, worries that Marcelo is not being prepared for "the real world." The real world is competitive; it has rules by which success is measured. Marcelo's father makes a deal with him: if he will spend the summer working at his father's law firm and successfully follow the rules of the real world, he can choose where he will spend his senior year. If he doesn't, he will have to attend the local high school.

Marcelo is assigned to the mailroom under the supervision of Jasmine, a no-nonsense young woman and aspiring jazz musician. She's not happy about having the boss's son foisted upon her, but she trains Marcelo in the ways of the mailroom. Another partner's son, Wendell, asks Marcelo to work with him on a special project involving the firm's defense of a manufacturer accused of knowingly making unsafe windshields. Wendell calls Marcelo "Gump" and tries to enlist his help in seducing Jasmine.

Marcelo is trying to sort out his discomfort with Wendell's menacing attraction to Jasmine and his own confusing feelings for her when he comes across a photo of a young girl in a box labeled "trash. …

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