In Francisco X. Stork’s eloquent and often surprising coming-of-age novel, 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is supposed to be spending the summer caring for nine ponies at his special-needs school. Instead, his unsympathetic lawyer father wants him to work in the mailroom of his law firm and experience “the real world.” The father and son agree that if Marcelo succeeds, he can return to his beloved school where he fits in perfectly, and if he doesn’t do well, he will be mainstreamed in the local public high school.
Marcelo’s first-person narration, with the flat inflections typical of Asperger’s, welcomes readers into a complex yet amazing mind that constantly tries to decipher sarcasm, figures of speech, facial expressions and other communication subtleties. Marcelo quickly finds an ally in the money-driven law firm in Jasmine, his confident, perceptive and gorgeous mailroom supervisor. While working, or rather picking up the slack, for smarmy Wendell, the partner’s son, he receives unsolicited advice on attraction and sex. When the teen discovers suppressed evidence and ponders his father’s involvement in a cover-up, he must decide if he will risk his father’s position and everything he wants in the new school term to do the right thing. But how does he even decide what the right thing is?
Marcelo finds that the real world—filled with jealousy, anger, suffering and difficult choices—is harder than he ever imagined. But with a strength he never knew he had, he realizes that the real world also comes with trust, friendship and even love. Perhaps Marcelo knows more about the world than it gives him credit for. His shockingly beautiful and thought-provoking story will make readers question their own motives and place in this world.
Angela Leeper is a librarian at the University of Richmond.