Book Review: Two Across

Two Across
By: Jeff Bartsch
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Release date: July 19, 2016
Genre: adult fiction
304 pages
Source: hard copy kindly provided by publisher

This is one of the most endearing love stories I’ve read in a while. Endearing, because both main characters are flawed and wounded and ridiculously charming. Their story is a series of events that, while improbable, are completely believable. It pulls at the heart strings in a way that reminds me of When Harry Met Sally: the reader comes to love these characters as old friends, and wishes nothing for them other than to find happiness.

Stanley and Vera are extraordinary people, and yet their problems are just like everyone else’s. They meet each other at the National Spelling Bee, where they are co-champions. They are invited to return each year as alumni, and so over time they become friends. They share backgrounds of absent fathers, controlling mothers, and extended absences from school that cause them to become isolated and socially naive. They similarly struggle with their mothers’ expectations, and when Stanley hatches a plan to escape, Vera is game.

The crossword puzzle theme is novel and quirky, but isn’t overworked. The references are heavier in the early part of the novel, then fall away as the focus becomes Stanley and Vera’s relationship, coming back into focus at key points to bring both the reader and the characters back to where the pair started:  when things were simple and good.

The book is set in the 1960’s and 1970’s, lending it a flavor of “simpler times” without getting too far from the reader’s reality. Adult readers will enjoy references to how social engagements and education were accomplished before everyone carried an electronic device in their pockets. There are reminders, as well, of how far we have come in the struggle for more equal treatment of women and people of color. The universality of the human experience shines through the years separating Stanley and Vera’s lives from our own, comforting us in the knowledge that, whatever ugliness we are facing, we are not alone.

Two Across would make an excellent read for either the beach or a leisurely long weekend. I read it in a day, but I think it might be even better enjoyed in chunks over a few weeks’ time. Either way, it’s worth grabbing a copy of your own to savor.

Highly awkward teenager Stanley Owens meets his match in beautiful, brainy Vera Baxter when they tie for first place in the annual National Spelling Bee-and the two form a bond that will change both of their lives. 

Though their mothers have big plans for them-Stanley will become a senator, Vera a mathematics professor-neither wants to follow these pre-determined paths. So Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the cash gifts, hoping they will enable him to pursue his one true love: crossword puzzle construction. In enlisting Vera to marry him, though, he neglects one variable: she's secretly in love with him, which makes their counterfeit ceremony an exercise in misery for her. 

Realizing the truth only after she's moved away and cut him out of her life, Stanley tries to atone for his mistakes and win her back. But he's unable to find her, until one day he comes across a puzzle whose clues make him think it could only have been created by Vera. Intrigued, he plays along, communicating back to her via his own gridded clues. But will they connect again before it's all too late?