by KB Meniado
Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. Writing the Great American Novel? Three chapters. His summer internship? One week. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion.
With college applications looming, Scott’s parents pressure him to get serious and settle on a career path like engineering or medicine. Desperate for help, he sneaks off to Washington, DC, to seek guidance from a famous professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success.
He never expects an adventure to unfold out of what was supposed to be a one-day visit. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life. Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try–all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be. Read reviews: Goodreads
WHAT I LIKED
Khaled Hosseini’s words are what Down and Across is—”quirky, charming, wise and unpredictable.” The writing style is easy to slip into, and the sporadic self-deprecating humor is right up my alley. I enjoyed how the story was central to the journey of the main character, Scott (Saakeeeeet!!!*) Ferdowsi, at the same time, maintained a strong cast of supporting characters (a case of MPDG [more later below!], a gay bartender, a Christian feminist, a grit professor, just to name a few) that I also learned to… not exactly, love, but at least enjoyed. They kept me going when the plot was a little askew at times, although that was understandable because this book has quite a lot of things going on. And when I say that, I mean quite a lot. There’s immigrant culture, there’s crossword fascination, there’s teenage rebellion (although soft), there’s sexuality, there’s religion, there’s politics, there’s mental health. Some readers may get either a little overwhelmed or bored by all those, but it’s the book living up to its theme: pretty gritty, trying to cover so many intersections at once.
“But what was wrong with caring about something you don’t understand? No one fully understands the universe. It’s incomplete. But we care about it anyway. We have to persist.” (page 274)
*Every time it comes up, I giggle a little because it translates to the Filipino word ‘sakit’ for me, which means ‘pain/hurt/sickness,’ and somehow it encapsulated what Saaket/Scott was going through
(Spoiler alert! Highlight succeeding text to read.) This to me read like John Green’s earlier works, reminiscent of Looking for Alaska x The Fault in Your Stars. That can be a good or bad or good-bad thing, depending on how you love/loathe JG.
Plus, this peaked my interest because I think I once or twice (or more) saw it marketed as a POC/#ownvoices kind of novel (Scott is Iranian-American), but I didn’t really see much more other than the parental dynamics. I guess that’s what happens when the story tries to highlight so many things? Not questioning Scott’s struggles, but I felt like this would have been more heartfelt had the elements (like conflict and resolution) been more of his exploration of identity, especially that his obsession with grit is connected to his wanting to break away from family and culture. I felt like that would have brought me a deeper sense of connection compared to the already-given longing to want to explore.
Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi delivers a worthwhile grit-seeking adventure. If it’s self-exploration, mistake-making and somehow life-changing turns you’re looking for, this might be something you want to pick up. ☁