High school senior Naila’s conservative immigrant parents believe that they offer her ample freedom. She may choose how she wears her hair, she has a non-Pakistani best friend, and they are even planning to allow her to go away to college and to study whatever she chooses. But they have always been clear that, following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then even friendship with a boy is forbidden. But when Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents become convinced that she has strayed too far, and they take her to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots.
Debut author Aisha Saeed perfectly opens Written in the Stars (Penguin, March, 2015) by immediately showing readers Naila’s increasing struggle with her loyalty to her conservative parents and her own conflicting dreams. Graduation is approaching, and once she is at college she will have space to breathe and to openly date Saif. And maybe her parents will come around and approve a match with Saif, despite the fact that his family has been cast out of their social circle due in large part to his sister’s marriage to a non-Pakistani man.
But an ill-conceived plan to attend prom backfires, and instead of planning for graduation and college orientation, Naila finds herself whisked off to Pakistan. Saeed presents a warm and rich picture of the sights and sounds of Naila’s family home in Pakistan, with wonderful sensory details and well-developed secondary characters. She makes it easy to understand how Naila comes to enjoy her time there and feel genuine affection for many of her extended family members. But as her family’s return to the United States gets delayed again and again, and more visitors come to see Naila in particular, the reader becomes aware that her parents have plans that they aren’t sharing with her – plans that will obliterate all of Naila’s dreams. The reading experience intensifies as Naila learns of their intentions, and then escalates with each of her failed effort to avoid her fate.
While Written in the Stars doesn’t offer a window into the lives and experiences of all Pakistani or Muslim girls and women, or even offer a typical experience of arranged marriage, it does offer an intense and informed insight into one, specific reality too many girls and women still face in many cultures and countries around the world. Many Pakistani and Muslim women would find Naila’s experiences not only foreign, but contrary to their families and the practice of their family’s religious beliefs. But to deny that forced marriages occur or to suggest that experiences like Naila’s are rare is to ignore the reality or coerced and forced marriages. Written in the Stars doesn’t attempt to soften any of Naila’s experiences or her very desperate position.
Naila’s voice is clear and strong, even in the throws of her desperation and despair. Saeed’s prose is straightforward and the story builds in tension and pace as the plot unfolds. While some events could have benefited from a more in depth exploration, especially the resolution in the final chapters, Written in the Stars is a gripping, powerful read.
An author’s note offers a brief insight into a far happier outcome for an arranged marriage – arranged, as opposed to forced. Saeed also offers resources for readers who may know a Naila or Saif in need of advice or assistance. Readers may also wish to read a recent guest blog post by Saeed, in which she discusses in more detail the difference between arranged and forced marriages.
Written in the Stars is intense, realistic fiction. And while it does not shy away from the harsh realities, it also offers moments of sweetness and shades of beauty, even as Naila’s fate seems grim. And, perhaps most importantly, it ends with hope and strength and self-determination.