STARRED REVIEW
August 2015

Spell it out

By Jeff Bartsch
Stanley and Vera reunite at each year’s National Spelling Bee, forming a bond over their shared victory and their mothers’ quirks and ambitious goals for their lives. They seem destined for success, sure to cross paths again at Harvard—until Stanley proposes a deal.
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C-H-A-R-L-A-T-A-N.

When that word comes up at the 1960 National Spelling Bee, Vera Baxter feels that a name has been given to her out-of-place ways. Staying at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel isn’t right for this girl who travels the East Coast, staying at cheap motels as her mom claws her way up the sales ladder. 

I-N-C-O-R-R-I-G-I-B-L-E.

As Stanley Owens steps to the microphone to spell his assigned word, Vera immediately pegs it as his perfect description.

As the 15-year-olds watch the pool of contestants around them dwindle, they recognize each other as prime competition. As they spell through the list of approved words, only Vera and Stanley are left standing. It’s a tie.

Words bring them together. And a love of words will tear them apart.

Stanley and Vera reunite at each year’s event, forming a bond over their shared victory and their mothers’ quirks and ambitious goals for their lives. They seem destined for success, sure to cross paths again at Harvard—until Stanley proposes a deal.

And that deal involves a proposal. The pair will marry, sell off the gifts and split the profits. Vera will be free to head to college according to plan. With a little starter money in his pocket, Stanley would chase another dream: a career creating crossword puzzles.

But there’s a hitch: Vera is secretly in love with Stanley and wishes the marriage weren’t a sham at all.

Two Across, the debut novel from Jeff Bartsch, follows the developing relationship of two young people from their school days far into adulthood. As Bartsch unravels Stanley’s charades and how they affect people around him, he weaves in enough crossword clues to keep any puzzle fans curious. That entertaining approach flows naturally from Bartsch’s background: He is an ad copywriter who also studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin

Bartsch sometimes sacrifices cleverness for plot development—there are moments in which the story seems to race ahead after previously taking carefully calculated steps. But the end result of Two Across is an examination of a relationship’s points of intersection and the clues that lead us back to ourselves.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Two Across

Two Across

By Jeff Bartsch
Grand Central
ISBN 9781455554621

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