Title: Two Across by Jeff Bartsch
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Historical (60s & 70s), Literary Fiction, Romance
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: C+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
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?
Two Across by Jeff Bartsch is a quirky yet clever romance between two slightly awkward and geeky protagonists. Spanning about fourteen years from their initial introduction, a love of crossword puzzles helps Stanley Owens and Vera Baxter reconnect time and again only to have their relationship falter under the weight of dishonesty.
Meeting as fifteen year olds at the National Spelling Bee, Vera and Stanley’s long distance friendship culminates in a faux marriage before beginning college. Stanley comes up with the harebrained scheme as a way to gain his freedom from his mother and keep her in the dark about the fact that he is not attending college. Vera goes along with his plan because she is secretly in love with him. As the years pass, Stanley and Vera create crossword puzzles with clues to facilitate their reunions but their relationship implodes time and again when Stanley’s schemes are uncovered and Vera runs away instead of facing their issues.
Stanley is the only child of an agoraphobic mother who has his future all mapped out for him. He is super intelligent but his only career goal is creating crossword puzzles. He dreams up some very elaborate yet ingenious schemes to convince his mom he has been accepted at Harvard and he uses the money from his sham marriage to Vera to keep up the facade. Stanley is content to make just enough money to maintain a simple lifestyle while he creates and submits various crossword puzzles over the years. Stanley’s lackadaisical attitude spills over into his private life with Vera and he is content to just coast along without truly committing to her or putting much effort into taking nurturing their relationship.
Vera is also crazy smart but unlike Stanley, she has clear goals and dreams that she works hard to achieve. She, too, is less than honest about her marriage, but unlike Stanley, she wants a real relationship. However, due to her fear of rejection, Vera keeps quiet about her feelings for him and their romance falls apart time and again when the truth about Stanley’s shenanigans or their relationship is discovered. Finally deciding enough is enough, Vera finally comes clean about their marriage and leaves Stanley behind while she completes her education and focuses on her career.
The premise of Two Across is quite unique but the story quickly gets bogged down in the on again/off again romance between Vera and Stanley. Stanley’s lack of honesty with his mother becomes tiresome as he continually falls back on schemes and lies instead of admitting the truth about what he wants in life. Vera is the more likable of the two but her propensity to run away when trouble strikes is frustrating as is her failure to take a risk and admit her feelings to Stanley. The crossword puzzles are quite fun and the manner in which Jeff Bartsch incorporates them into the plot is rather ingenious. Overall, an inventive romance with a bittersweet conclusion that readers of literary fiction will enjoy.