In Down and Across, the crossword-themed young adult debut from Arvin Ahmadi, a teenager grapples with his own insecurities and struggles to live up to his parents’ expectations.
Flake, dabbler, dilettante, commitment-phobe, goldfish – call him what you will, Saaket “Scott” Ferdowsi is the poster boy for decision fatigue and self-doubt. Everything he’s tried, he’s quit: hobbies, instruments, goals, even bowls of cereal.
His parents, both Iranian immigrants, wish he could buckle down and build his future, brick by brick. Since Scott apparently is incapable of passion or perseverance, his dad takes the reins.
The summer before Scott’s senior year, Mr. Ferdowsi sets up an internship at a university lab, where Scott is to perform laboratory rodent fecal analysis. (“Mouse poop,” Scott declares flatly.) When his parents fly to Iran to take care of a family health crisis, Scott stays behind for the internship.
One night, he goes on a Wikipedia spiral about Georgetown professor Cecily Mallard, grit-ologist and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as a “Genius Grant”). “The single most reliable predictor of success is grit,” she preaches. Keep grinding on long-term goals, even when you fail.
Scott becomes obsessed. “Grit became my magic potion: the cure to my constantly sidetracked train of thought,” he raves. “It was the gigantic anvil that would squash all my insecurities and pave the way for the rest of my life.”
Within days, he bails on the internship and hops a bus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., planning to ambush Professor Mallard and get her gritty advice.
On the bus ride, he meets Fiora Buchanan, a GWU student and aspiring crossword constructor. Fiora, in her own way, is flailing and failing. She’s an interesting character who ultimately fell flat for me; more on that later.
Scott convinces Mallard to take him on as an unpaid, unofficial researcher, compiling bios of gritty historical figures while she writes her next book. At one point, Mallard admonishes Scott for viewing failure as a permanent state.
“Why would you get hung up over ... anything else you might have failed at?” Mallard asks. “Everybody fails. We deal with failure and disappointment and other feelings that are far more damaging. That’s how you grow.” It’s an excellent lesson for readers of all ages.
Ahmadi gives Scott a witty and self-conscious inner monologue. In a particularly funny turn, Scott’s thoughts turn all-caps upon entering a deafening basement nightclub.
By week three of four, you can practically feel Scott growing taller and standing straighter. He declares, “D.C. had given me a fresh start. It threw me into a cold washing machine, where I tumbled around a ruthless cylinder of rejection, but now I could feel the positive effects. All that insecurity and doubt were purged from the fabric of my future.”
Now, let’s talk about Fiora Buchanan. Though her bartender friend Trent, the Southern Political Aspirant Ken to her Mixed-Up Daredevil Bohemian Barbie, repeatedly reminds us of Fiora’s struggle, her characterization inevitably veers into Manic Pixie Dream Girl [MPDG] territory.
“I couldn’t resist imagining my life as one of those coming-of-age movies,” Scott daydreams on the bus, “and Fiora as the quirky, two-dimensional female character, written in solely to help me discover my full potential. The idea was nice.”
Sorry, Mr. Ahmadi, but I’m calling it. When a male protagonist describes a female character thus – when he calls her a “caricature of a real person” with a “free-spirited, life-is-an-adventure-so-carpe-freaking-diem perspective” – and when she seems to exist only for the guy’s purposes, I hold up an MPDG red card.
That being said, I’m an avid cruciverbalist, and a crossword-centric plot with a Will Shortz epigraph was too dreamy to ignore. Fiora draws beautiful parallels between human lives and crossword puzzles.
“The thing about life is we don’t get to draw the grid; we take the rows and columns we’re given,” she says. “What we do get to do is fill the cells. And rather than filling mine with anxiety over medical school or Greek politics – instead of feeling trapped by my circumstance – I fill them with arbitrary words.”
Consider this a sort of teenage “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or “Along Came Polly.” (Apparently Ben Stiller should star in a movie version of this book.) “Down and Across” is clever, brash, and punchy, rife with good advice and incisive commentary about parents’ expectations.
Due to scenes with underage drinking, drug use, and language, “Down and Across” is best reserved for older readers.