Two Across

two-acrossTWO ACROSS
Author: Jeff Bartsch
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 293 pages

“NATURE abhors a vacuum. You see that empty black-and-white grid, and you want to start filling it in. You like to fill up those squares,” enthuses Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor. He’s right. The countless scribbled puzzles swiped from my sisters’ magazines underscores my need to “fill up empty squares” thus earning the wrath of angry women in my household flailing their once pristine magazines in front of my guilty face.

Award-winning copywriter Jeff Bartsch has written a book that incorporates both of my pet subjects — crossword puzzles and romance — and delivers a winner.

Two Across brings you Stanley Owens and Vera Baxter, two star-crossed lovers who first meet at 15, at the annual National Spelling Bee where they’re tied for first place, inexorably binding them together in an unlikely partnership that’ll eventually change both of their lives forever.

With ambitious mothers charting the course of their lives, Stanley and Vera struggle to get out of the paths set before them — Stanley a Harvard graduate and potential senator while Vera, who believes maths to be “a playground of the imagination, rich with ideas and fascinating magic,” is to be a mathematics professor. Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the nuptial gifts they hope to exchange for cash so that he’d be able to pursue his one true passion: Constructing crossword puzzles. They agree to split the proceeds and move to Cambridge where Vera will enrol as a Radcliffe freshman while Stanley tries to find a job creating crossword puzzles.

The hare-brained scheme might have worked but Stanley hadn’t factored in one extra variable — Vera’s in love with him. Stanley “suspected he had shortcomings in the matters of the heart” — a failing that causes Vera to cut him out of her life several times. Stanley discovers that there are some things in life that are a lot more complicated than solving a puzzle, and that sometimes love can derail the best of plans in a way that no amount of rebellion against overbearing mothers could.

The best parts of Two Across are the ubiquitous cleverly coded puzzles that snake through the chapters. The estranged couple periodically reconnects through puzzles where themes and clues chart their relationship stages and point out to where they’re located like a compass, using words and clues from their history together. Crossword enthusiasts will appreciate the puzzles but the die-hard romantics will be eager to solve the biggest puzzle of all: Will Stanley and Vera find their happily ever after?

What’s hot: I learnt a new word — appoggiatura. Why is that relevant? I don’t know. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing read with an ending that leaves you cheering and then reaching for the tissues.

What’s not: Without the crossword puzzles and word play, some parts may not be as emotive as you’d like it to be. And of course there’s Stanley. He’s an idiot. Why do women fall for idiots? It’s an age old puzzle that remains to be solved.

First published in the New Straits Times, 29th November, 2016

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