Hardcover, 312 pages
Published: March 1st 2009, Arthur A. Levine Books (1st published March 1, 2008)
Literary Awards: Schneider Family Book Award for Teen Book (2010), South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Young Adult Book Award (2011), Sakura Medal Nominee for High School Book (2010), Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award (ALAN/NCTE) Nominee (2010), Voya Perfect Ten (2009), The Inky Awards Nominee for Silver Inky Long List (2011), Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2014), ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)
Seventeen-year-old Marcelo, who has neurological differences similar to Asperger’s Syndrome, will soon start his senior year of high school. His father’s income as founding partner of a law firm has provided the opportunity to attend Paterson, an excellent school for individuals with disabilities. There, Marcelo has been accepted for who he is and allowed as much time as he needs to process what’s going on in his environment and finish tasks. This is a place where Marcelo isn’t rushed and feels accepted and appreciated for who he is.
Like Christopher Boone, the Aspergian protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Marcelo has a special interest. While Christopher’s passion is math, Marcelo is fascinated with God and religion. His family is Catholic, and he enjoys praying the Rosary. He also delves into the holy books of different religions, and his mother arranges for him to have regular discussions with a rabbi. This is not a pervasive interest that lends itself to static thinking — he is not memorizing train schedules or sports scores. He is exploring abstract ideas, like Man’s relationship to God and the experience of prayer.
When Marcelo finishes his junior year of high school, his father decides he needs to come out of the protected environment of Paterson and learn to cope with the “real world.” This involves a summer job with his father’s law firm, which is a bit like being thrown into a viper pit. While Marcelo asks the rabbi questions like “Why were Adam and Eve ashamed, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, when they realized they were naked?” he experiences his own journey from innocence to knowledge. He is facing human evil in various forms: encountering people who are driven by greed, lust, anger, and sheer pettiness. When he discovers the photo of a girl with a mutilated face, which has been pulled out of the legal files and discarded, he feels compelled to find out what really happened and what his co-workers aren’t telling him about their company’s biggest lawsuit. Marcel soon faces some very difficult decisions.
As we watch Marcelo leave the Garden of Eden, we also see him struggle with various decisions, large and small. He is no longer in a static world where tasks are clearly laid out, he gets as much time as he needs, and the right answers are usually clear. He has to decide whether a task merits being done at a slow, meticulous pace or if it has to be done quickly. He has to “read” people who are not being straightforward about what they mean. He has to improvise. He is learning what the best autism therapies try to teach — to “read” people and situations, adapt, solve problems, and make choices. Part of this is deciding how to respond to unethical behavior, even on the part of his own father. When his dad puts Marcelo in the “real world,” and asks him to make decisions accordingly, he gets more than he bargained for.
I found Marcelo to be a multi-layered, believable character with a compelling story who experiences tremendous growth throughout the novel. There are many layers of truth in this book, from how people with neurological differences learn to the role of faith in human life and the nature of good and evil. It’s definitely a book I won’t forget.