Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reality bites

The great listener Mary Burkey posted a brief review of Marcelo in the Real World on her Audiobooker blog, and I knew I had to give it my ears. This book -- by a young adult author I'd never heard of, Francisco X. Stork -- tells the story of 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval. Marcelo tells people (when they ask) that he has Asperger's Syndrome. He attends a special school, his beloved Paterson, where he feels a particular affinity for the Haflinger therapy ponies. He's looking forward to the coming summer, where he'll care full time for the beasts.

Then his father -- a corporate attorney with an office in downtown Boston -- drops a bombshell. Arturo proposes that Marcelo spend the summer working in the mailroom of the law office. If he is successful there -- if he does the work as defined by his father and Jasmine, the young woman running the mailroom -- he won't have to spend his senior year mainstreamed in public school. If he chooses to spend the summer at Paterson, he will have to go to public school in the fall. Marcelo feels like he has no choice, and is thrust into the office politics of a cutthroat law firm where nothing is black and white. Yet, despite (or perhaps because?) of his limited social skills, he effects positive change at the firm while remaining true to himself, and when the summer is over, Marcelo has a plan for the rest of his life in the real world.

This was a compelling and -- in places -- almost suspenseful story, where we see the world from this (un)reliable narrator who cannot tell a lie, who fears the world that he's forced into, yet who emerges triumphant -- although certainly changed -- by the end of his summer. Marcelo's voice is distancing, yet sympathetic. Few would read this story and not feel that he has made the right decision, even though he is telling us his story. There is a great deal of comfort in the (somewhat fairytale-like) outcome.

Mary Burkey is right that you want to slow down and listen to Marcelo, and that an audio version enables you to do this. Lincoln Hoppe gives a lovely, subtle performance: Beginning with a stiff formal reading, he slowly relaxes and slightly emotes as Marcelo learns to bend and adapt to the complexities of a world where motives are hidden and the truth is not simple. It was a pleasure to listen to this.

A few quibbles: Occasionally laziness was audible as Hoppe neglected to change character voices during conversations. I also wanted him to drink more water as his voice would start to sound gluey. He didn't seem particularly comfortable when he was asked to speak Spanish.

On the whole, though, a story that translates well to audio. I haven't listened to the audio version of The London Eye Mystery, but I just loved Jeff Woodman's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. What is it about first-person narrators with autism disorders? Why do we enjoy them so much?

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