Marcelo, age 17, is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Highly intelligent, he hears inner music; speaks of both himself and people he addresses in third person; sometimes struggles with appropriate responses; is intensely interested in the Bible and prayer, which he calls "remembering"; and has yet to feel any sexual desire. He feels at home and well-educated at his special high school where he has a summer job as stable man, taking care of and training ponies to be ridden by kids with all kinds of disabilities. The problem arises when Marcelo's father issues an ultimatum. Marcelo, he says, isn't experiencing enough of the real world. He can either go ahead with his summer job at the stable and switch to public high school for his senior year, or he can stay at his school IF he comes to work in the mail room at his father's law firm for the summer. Deciding that his bottom line is not to switch schools, Marcelo chooses the law firm, where he meets the conniving, golden-boy son of his father's partner and the unique young woman who supervises him in the mailroom, discovers that the firm is defending the manufacturer of defective car windshields that have maimed scores of people, and finds out certain unpleasant facts about his father -- learning more about the real world than his father may have wished.
But this book is far from jaded or pessimistic. There are two sides to every story, and weaknesses and strengths in everyone, whether they're considered disabled, normal or gifted. Marcelo's voice is unique but believable, kind but dispassionate, childlike but not naive. The development of his relationship with Jasmine, the girl in the mailroom, is surprising, a linking up of the things they have in common, with no giddiness or rushing into displays of affection. All of the secondary characters are more than types, more than what people would assume about them, just as Marcelo is.
Marcelo in the Real World won the 2010 Schneider Family Book Award in the YA category, and the award is richly deserved. This is simply a very lovely novel.