Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. 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 and his parents pushing him to settle on a “practical” career, Scott sneaks off to Washington, DC, seeking guidance from a famous psychologist who claims to know the secret to success.
He never expects an adventure to unfold. 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 what he wants to be.
I was all geared up to love Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi. The first chapter was great, all my blogger buds love it, and it’s the story of a kid panicking about his future – all elements that usually add up to love for me. Unfortunately though, as sometimes happens, me and this book did not click. It’s kind of like when I read Mosquitoland (David Arnold, incidentally, is thanked in Ahmadi’s acknowledgements), I could see at a distance why other people loved it, but the disconnect between that and me was just too great to bridge. It took me two weeks to get through it – and it’s really not that long of a book.
It wasn’t all bad. Saaket “Scott” Ferdowsi is a fairly endearing character. It was refreshing to read about a fellow quitter – there are far too many naturally talented and committed fictional teenage role models in my opinion – someone who had been led to believe that a lack of a specific passion meant that he wasn’t a passionate person, something anyone a little further on in the whole life process than Saaket will have discovered (or will discover) isn’t true at all. The novel explores the universal truth that life isn’t so much a straightforward plan you execute as something that you stumble into. That just because a person isn’t in your life forever doesn’t make them any less important.
My issue with the book – something I should have seen coming from the blurb – was with Fiora Buchanan, the ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. From her name to her crosswords, Fiora is a worthy addition to the canon of manic pixie dream girl, the trope that apparently will never die. Fiora is a classic boundaryless, non-specifically angry, manipulative, beautiful mess with, apparently, no female friends to speak of, who leads Saaket on a journey of discovery. The weird part is that Ahmadi tries to head off this criticism early by making a joke about the very trope the whole of the rest of his book is built on. When Saaket and Fiora first meet (on a bus on the way to DC where Fiora implies she has deep life problems and pain but refuses to get specific about it), Saaket thinks to himself:
“I couldn’t resist imagining my life as one of those coming-of-age movies – and Fiora as the quirky, two-dimensional female character, written solely to help me discover my own full potential. The idea was nice… But that wasn’t Fiora’s job.”
And yet, Fiora did not do one believable thing throughout the entire book. She did a series of ridiculous things to inspire Saaket to do character-develop-ey things, which is the definition of the thing that Admadi says that she wasn’t.
She is at various points described as a sexy, manipulative tease and primarily hangs out with teenage boys and middle aged men.
My patience with this particular trope has worn so thin as to be non-existent, and though I did try to move past it and enjoy the story, unfortunately I could not. Like Fiora’s apparently ginormous lips, it was impossible to look away from.
Down and Across is an okay novel. It takes something that has often been a very white story – a young man trying to find himself – and looks at it instead through the lens of the child of Iranian immigrants. Trying to determine a solid sense of self while dealing with the clashing cultures of home life and school life while also dealing with the pressure of his parents forever reminding him of the sacrifices they had made for him isn’t easy for Saaket, and his journey throughout the story is an engaging one. However, for me anyway, Down and Across fell down through an over reliance on tropes, and, without getting into spoiler territory, a resolution that felt a little bit too easy, under the circumstances.
Solid three stars. Unlikely to reread.