ARC · Contemporary Literature · Young Adult

Down and Across

A few things drew me to this book. One, the adorable crossword puzzle cover. Two, the recommendation by Adam Silvera (I just recently read my first book by him, More Happy Than Not, and, though it wasn’t necessarily my favorite book ever, I respect the writing and story-crafting, look forward to reading another, and generally now respect his opinion). And lastly, it was one of the offers on First to Read – and I am definitely a sucker for a chance to read a book before everyone else. (Call me a nerd, it’s cool.) So yea, I entered to read it and was chosen to receive a copy. Alright!

One more thing: I usually miss this because I am not paying enough attention, so I’d like to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back for coinciding this review post with official Pub Day!! Down and Across is officially on sale in the world today, 2/6/18. Congratulations to Ahmadi on you very first book birthday!! (And if this review makes it sound like this book is for you – go out and buy it now!)

Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi

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“Two steps forward, one back. Five forward, twelve back. Left, right, diagonal, down, across, and right back around to the block. We’re all just trying to keep moving. Sometimes we know where we’re going and sometimes we get lost. But as long as we move, we grow.”

Scott Ferdowsi is your typical high school kid with overbearing parents – they want him to have a plan for the rest of his life (one that involves becoming something important and respectable, like a doctor or an engineer) like, right now. And Scott…well he’s your normal high school kid that doesn’t know what he wants out of life just yet. And is stressed out about it, hardcore. Especially since he has a tendency to quit when the going gets…less interesting. But when his parents go out of town for three weeks over the summer before his senior year (visiting family in Iran) and leave him behind to get experience at a summer research internship, Scott makes a crazy decision. He “runs away” from home to visit Washington D.C. and track down Professor Mallard, a researcher and academic known for work in “grit,” that special persistence that allows people to be successful even after failure. He’s hoping she’ll help him find his own grit. Along the way, he meets some new friends: Fiora, a quirky cruciverbalist (crossword-puzzle maker) who just a little bit crazy (but in a good way…mostly), Trent, a bartender and aspiring politician, and Jeanette, a hyper-religious girl looking to experience a little life before settling down in her traditional family life. They each help him, in their own way, as he spends 3 weeks growing up and finding his grit.

First, this book is adorable. Truly a heartwarming coming of age tale. Scott’s stressors are wonderfully poignant to young adult life – the struggle to find who you are and what you are good at, how to plan for the future, and how to somehow translate that into a life, is universal. And the fear that you won’t be able to (that comes from within) coupled with pressures from parents and society, is something that I, at least, identify with strongly. That lost feeling that Scott has, when you truly do not know what you want but wish that you did because it would make everyone, including yourself, happier…that’s written spot on here. Other than that, there is a fantastically representative range of young adult struggles and experiences, from each of the characters in their own turn, particularly regarding relationships with parents. These struggles really efficiently show how each person has their own issues that they must tackle and, though they can be commiserated about, and the burdens shared, they should never be ordered or compared. It’s an important lesson for us all.

Despite all of that, I thought perhaps some things happened a bit too conveniently for Scott, throughout the novel. Meeting Fiora and Trent, the deal with the hostel and generally some of the other random connections with other characters; they seem, at times, to happen too easily to be realistic. However, if you are able to look past that initial unbelievability (is that a word?), the relationships that develop from those first meetings are just beautiful. Within the span of Scott’s time in D.C., he meets and creates real relationships with people, that have depth and nuance consistent with the story timeline and plot, but do not advance too far into unnecessary romance or unrealistic closeness. And the way they “end,” if you will, as Scott’s time in D.C. ends, are true to the personalities of the characters and do not give in to nostalgia or a need for “perfect endings.” I truly appreciate that reality and thought it gave the book an extra gravitas, along with the general heartwarming bildungsroman feel of the story.

As a small note, I read this as an ebook ARC, so unfortunately, the illustrations related to the crossword puzzles came through in very strange formatting. I feel like I really lost out on one of the best parts of the book as result. I loved the way crossword puzzles were used to tie things together and “teach” lessons and it was too bad that the visuals were not completely there to support this facet of the book. I definitely plan to flip through it at the library/a bookstore once it’s published, in order to see what it’s supposed to look like! Also, random, has anyone seen the movie All About Steve, with Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper? Bullock’s character totally reminds me of Fiora (and not just because they are both cruciverbalists) – I kept picturing her every time I read her parts. If that gets stuck in your head now…I’m sorry.

In any case, moving on… The dialogue was quick and genuine, which I loved. Scott’s coming of age happened with events that were only partially farfetched (as they must needs be, in order to make this book entertaining enough to keep reading), yet still, in the grand scheme of things, are small (both in the trajectory of the world and their effect on people other than Scott himself). I appreciated this aspect, in particular. I’ll be honest, I felt like things dragged a bit in the middle. Nothing was unreasonable about the pace, but for some reason, about halfway in, I lost momentum. However, it did pick back up towards the last quarter. Regardless, this was an incredibly sweet story that made me hope for and cheer on Scott’s successes.

This ARC was provided to me courtesy of First to Read and Viking Books in exchange for an honest review.

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