Highly awkward teenager Stanley Owens meets his match in beautiful, brainy Vera Baxter when they tie for first place in the annual National Spelling Bee-and the two form a bond that will change both of their lives.
Though their mothers have big plans for them-Stanley will become a senator, Vera a mathematics professor-neither wants to follow these pre-determined paths. So Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the cash gifts, hoping they will enable him to pursue his one true love: crossword puzzle construction. In enlisting Vera to marry him, though, he neglects one variable: she's secretly in love with him, which makes their counterfeit ceremony an exercise in misery for her.
Realizing the truth only after she's moved away and cut him out of her life, Stanley tries to atone for his mistakes and win her back. But he's unable to find her, until one day he comes across a puzzle whose clues make him think it could only have been created by Vera. Intrigued, he plays along, communicating back to her via his own gridded clues. But will they connect again before it's all too late?
Debut author Bartsch's promising tale is hurt by emotionally distant writing and an abrupt, disappointing ending. It's 1960 when Stanley, trapped by his agoraphobic mother, and Vera, forever moving from one hotel room to the next with hers, meet as two teenagers who tie for first place in the National Spelling Bee (in Washington, D.C.). While his mother plans his future, Stanley just wants to create crossword puzzles, and so he hatches a plan to gain his freedom while keeping his fragile mother in the dark. He and Vera pretend to marry in order to cash in on the wedding gifts. Vera, secretly in love with Stanley, agrees to his scheme hoping that, in time, he'll come to share her feelings. Stanley and Vera have good chemistry together, and the novel is populated by a quirky, diverse cast of characters. Unfortunately, Bartsch's writing is detached and often clunky ("He tried, but she didn't want to listen, and said she was done with all that, and furthermore she declared she was done with love"). Add to that a sudden ending and readers may feel cheated.
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Review: Two Across
Two Across by Jeff Bartsch is a standalone romantic fiction novel that is so unique and quirky you can't help falling into the pages and soaking up Vera and Stanley's story. Set in the 50's and 60's and starting with a spelling bee this story will draw you in as their relationship progresses. Through the awkwardness of the really smart to the confidence of the adult who has finally found their place in the world, the transitions these characters make as they grow up and learn life lessons is both heartwarming and a little bittersweet.
While outside of my usual box of romance novels, this was a wonderful read that kept me fully engaged with story throughout.
There are tons of good bits here
Stanley and Vera are achievers, with strong-willed mothers in their back pockets, determining each move. Meeting as co-champions at the National Spelling Bee, and the two are instantly bonded in their love of words and the frustration with their mothers’ plans for them.
See- Stanley doesn’t want to be a senator, he wants to build crossword puzzles. Vera has little interest in mathematics, and a life of academia makes her yawn. While they both find a connection, Vera is intrigued by the person Stanley shows her, and develops more than a small crush.
The only alternative that they can see to making their own lives is to marry – entirely for show – and move on their own paths. But, Vera truly does have feelings for Stanley – feelings that he is using in ways that show his early training in manipulating his mother are played out with Vera.
These two are intriguing: Stanley’s mother is agoraphobic and manipulative, and he’s used to functioning around and without her interference by using similar tactics. He’s driven, intelligent and rather sociopathic in his desires to achieve his own ends, others be damned. Vera is directed and driven, but so afraid of rejection and conflict that she never actually confronts Stanley on his bad behavior, rather plays along in the on again-off again relationship, never to be truly satisfied. Through the years covered in the story, these two arrange ‘reunions’ using crossword puzzles and clues in various newspapers. Insanely clever in a premise, and these two are intriguing.
But Vera is far more the empathetic character, even as she isn’t able to put her foot down and stop Stanley’s manipulations earlier. She’s a run not confront sort of person, and she’s constantly running from things, most importantly standing up to Stanley, telling him how she feels and demanding her own space and input in their very dysfunctional relationship.
There are tons of good bits here – the puzzles are clever and work into the plot in ways that are both revealing and surprising. Those alone are sure to please fans who want something different. The back and forth between these two tends to muddy the clear pacing and path forward as they grow and find their ways (or not) together. While the conclusion was perfectly fitting, giving the best outcome I could expect in many ways, the bittersweet tones felt appropriate and closed their story nicely. A wonderful story for fans of literary fiction or those who enjoy a bit of a puzzle.
I received an Arc copy of the title from the publisher for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.