Title: Down and Across
Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Genre: Young-adult contemporary
Published on: February 6th 2018
Published by: Viking Books for Young Readers
My rating: 3 gritty stars
The third book I read for my Asian Lit Bingo Challenge was Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi. I had heard a lot of things about this book, but the reviews never really captured my attention. Until the ALBC came along and I was looking for own-voices books from East Asia. This was it! I went into it excited for a fluffy read aaaaand… I came out disappointed.
Scott (aka Saaket) is still in high school, but his Iranian dad has his whole life planned out. He will spend his summer being a lab research assistant, ace all his tests, and then go off to med school. Needless to say Saaket is less than happy about this. When his parents leave for Iran, he knows it’s now or never if he wants to spend a summer not studying mouse poop. Saaket hops on a Greyhound bus to Washington D.C. and has a month to figure out what to make of his life.
If you want to read why this was nothing but an average YA book to me, keep on reading! This is a spoiler-free review.
Let’s start off with the things I liked in this novel.
Saaket is Irianian-American, so what?!
I have talked about this a lot, but I think Ahmadi nailed it when it comes to diversity. Saaket is the son of first-generation Persians in America, but he doesn’t particularly identify with the culture. He refuses to use the name Saaket and opts for Scott. He has never been to Iran. He barely speaks Farsi. Basically, Scott is just a teenager like any other — but one that stands out because of his skin color and name.
I liked that the author didn’t reduce the main character to “Iranian-American.” He let him be a normal teenager who has normal teenager issues. Who am I? What do I want to do? Am I in love? How do I fall in love? It’s refreshing to see a main character be a POC but not be reduced to that label.
Diversity, diversity, diversity!
Scott is an Iranian-American character. His parents are Iranian now living in America. There’s a gay side character. There’s a character with a mental illness. There seems to be so much diversity in this book!
Just like with Scott, none of them are defined by their “diverseness.” They all still have their personalities in one way or another.
Fiora (one of the female central characters) is a cruciverbalist. Meaning, she loves to solve crossword puzzles and coming up with new puzzles herself. She just appreciates words and puzzle solving so much!
Being someone who also likes to solve crossword puzzles, it was fun to see them included in the plot. There are crossword-puzzle meetings, a crossword-puzzle-solving group of friends, and even a crossword puzzle at the end of the book for the reader to solve!
Not knowing what to do in the future…
A big part of this novel revolves around not knowing what to do when you get out of school. It’s something that, in my opinion, most people (or at least a lot of people) go through when they’re young. Scott doesn’t know what instrument to play, what after-school-activity to get involved in — let alone what to study after graduation!
This was the most relatable part of the plot. Who knows what they want to be at 40 when they’re only 16? Certainly not Scott or me!
Now, for the worst part, here are the things I did not care about or flat out didn’t like in this novel.
Fiora (aka textbook manic pixie girl)
Oh boy… Do I hate manic pixie girls… We meet Fiora (the eternal cruciverbalist) when Scott is on the bus on the way to Washington D.C.. From the first moment and description of her, I knew she would turn out to be a mic pixie girl. This girl is just too damn quirky. No one is like this in real life!!! She has a passion for crossword puzzles (okay, I get it), breaks into other people’s rooms and is super mysterious about it (uhmmm, definitely NOT okay), and leaves a trail of destruction behind her.
Fiora is beyond unlikable, and not in a good way. Whereas Holden Caulfield is unlikable but you see where he’s coming from and it’s his likeability that makes the novel so unique, Fiora is just an asshole. She’s this super damaged girl who is soooooo quirky and fun and hot and mysterious! I hated reading about her.
Terrible writing and dialogues
I know, I know. This contradicts what I wrote earlier, but I could not relate to any of these characters. Sure, I could understand their problems and issues, but their dialogue and inner monologues? Those were insufferable. Here is a direct quote: “It was a cramped and messy space…nay, it was a disaster zone.” What teenager in the 21st century says nay unironically????
It wasn’t just the dialogue and writing style that made me feel disconnected with the characters — the plot is extremely implausible. Scott bails on his internship (not a spoiler, happens in the first few pages) and gets a bus to DC. He meets this super quirky, super cute girl on it and their paths keep crossing. The only friend he makes also has a tie to Fiora. He gets an internship (unofficial) with a very well-known researcher without even being enrolled in the university she works for just because he asked. I mean, seriously!!!
I know books don’t always have to be realistic. But for a young-adult contemporary to not be plausible at all is, in my opinion, just ridiculous. I could not connect to the characters at all because of this.
Mental health representation
As I’ve mentioned, there’s a character here dealing with a mental illness. However, it is never addressed beyond “yeah, mental illnesses suck, good thing I don’t have one!” I think this is incredibly failed writing and editing. Why would you bring it up if you’re not going to deal with it? Is it because it’s just another quirky thing to add to the novel? As you can tell, this made me very, very mad.
I feel like Ahmadi tried to tackle diversity but didn’t really know how to tackle the question of mental health. He should have just let it be…
This is definitely a John-Green-like novel. It is advertised on the blurb and it makes sense! It’s your classic coming-of-age young-adult book that tries too hard to prove that it is serious™. It’s good that it has some diversity, but that definitely isn’t enough to make up for the poor writing and unlikable characters.
Have you read this book? What did you think?! I would love to read your thoughts in the comment section! 🌻