Marcelo Sandoval, a seventeen-year-old with an Asperger's-like condition, is looking forward to spending the summer working with the Haflinger therapy ponies at Paterson, his special school. However, his father, a lawyer, insists that he spend the summer working in the mail room at his law firm. There, Marcelo faces unexpected ethical quandaries that force him to make difficult choices.
Marcelo in the Real World contains examples of:
- Calling Parents by Their Name: Marcelo calls his parents Aurora and Arturo.
- Cardboard Box of Unemployment: When Robert Steely, a lawyer at the firm, is fired for being too soft, Marcelo is told to bring him two cardboard boxes for his belongings.
- Character Tics: Marcelo and Arturo both open and close their hands when they can't find the right words to say.
- Friendly Address Privileges: Toby, a doctor who helps with Marcelo's twice-yearly evaluations, insists that Marcelo call him Toby and not Doctor.
- How Dad Met Mom: While Marcelo is on a camping trip with his coworker Jasmine, her friend Cody tells him how her parents met. Her mother Lila was a waitress at a restaurant her father Amos used to visit. They spent years bantering with each other. One day when Amos was almost fifty and Lila was almost forty, Amos said something flirty, and Lila told him that if he was never going to get serious with her, he could leave now. They were married a week later.
- Kick the Dog: While Wendell Holmes is trying to pressure Marcelo into helping him get Jasmine onto a boat so he can rape her, he lures a pigeon over towards his foot with a potato chip. Then he kicks the pigeon hard. It's the first time Marcelo has ever seen anyone hurt an animal.
- The Last Dance: Aurora tells Marcelo how she decided what branch of nursing she wanted to go into. When she was a teenager, she had a summer job as a nurse's aide. She met an old man with pancreatic cancer who was enjoying his last few weeks of relatively good health, and wanted to go on a roller coaster, which he'd always been too afraid to do. So she drove him and two kids with cancer to an amusement park, where everyone rode the biggest, scariest roller coaster. During his funeral, Aurora made the decision to work with kids with cancer.
- Scatterbrained Senior: Amos mistakes Marcelo for his son James, who died years ago, even though James had blond hair and Marcelo is Hispanic.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Arturo Sandoval and his partner Stephen Holmes can't stand each other. Stephen's son Wendell thinks it's partly due to jealousy over Arturo's success, especially since Stephen sees him as a minority hire. They work together anyway because Stephen needs Arturo's money from helping clients in Central and South America get their inventions patented in the US, and Arturo needs Stephen's connections and skill as a litigator.
- Third-Person Person: Marcelo sometimes refers to both himself and the people he's talking to in the third person. It's an effort for him to remember to use pronouns.