Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.
Note: my review will discuss forced marriages.
I like to think that I have read a lot of books – books that have made me feel an array of things, including shock, anger, and pain. However, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed may just be one of the most difficult and heart-rending books that I have ever read. It tells the story of Naila, a Pakistani-American teen who, after her parents discover that she has a boyfriend despite their rules against this, is whisked off away to Pakistan for, what is initially assumed to be, a holiday and an opportunity for Naila to connect to her roots and culture – but turns out to be a trip that will change her life forever. Despite that reading this book was incredibly tough for me, this book is so important and should absolutely be read by everyone.
A candid and sensitive exploration of forced marriages
I do not have a new perspective to offer regarding the forced arranged marriage depicted in this book since I am not very familiar with the issues. What I do understand, however, and hope to make clear to those who may feel trepidation or unease about reading this book, is that the author makes clear (especially in her Author’s Note, which I highly recommend reading after or before finishing this story) that arranged marriages are nowadays typically consensual and involves the input of the individuals being married. Thus, Written in the Stars portrays a darker and extreme side of arranged marriages: the ones that are forced and not consensual; a problem that isn’t limited to a specific culture or country, but occurs indiscriminately across all cultures, religions, and places.
What I appreciated about Written in the Stars was that the portrayal of forced marriage was candid yet sensitive. Saeed writes Naila’s story without melodrama or sensationalism. Rather, she presents Naila’s story, and a reality that girls forced into marriages face, and her struggles candidly, presents the issues for what they are, is critical of forced marriages without antagonising the wider cultures in which arranged marriages exist, and is clearly and consciously critical of the individuals who perpetuate forced arranged marriages. Thus, I highly recommend reading book reviews of this book by Aimal from Bookshelves and Paperbacks, Fadwa from Word Wonders, and Neha from BiblioNyan, whose perspectives of the book and its themes are invaluable.
Tense, terrifying, but nonetheless compelling
Given the story’s subject matter, Written in the Stars is unsurprisingly a tense read. Its mellow and vanilla beginning almost lulls you into a false sense of security – it briefly depicts Naila’s school life in America, her hopes and dreams for the future, the false pretense of her family’s ‘holiday’ to Pakistan, and how quickly everything devolves and unravels for her. Saeed’s writing was excellent and brilliant, as she deftly demonstrates how quickly and how unassuming things can be, how things can change, and how reality as you know it can unravel and evolve into something that is entirely unfamiliar.
Despite reading this book made me ache and rage and anxious and scared, I was nonetheless compelled. With its short chapters, Written in the Stars is excellently paced, and the short chapters almost offer a reprieve from the emotional punches in the gut of each chapter. Reading this book and seeing how easily Naila’s, and in extension to young people who may face similar situations, autonomy and freedom could be snatched away, truly scared me. It made me realise that freedom is such a tenuous and arbitrary thing, but one that is absolutely necessary to fight for and that we all possess a strength to fight for better.
Told with an emotional and deeply personal narrative voice
What makes Written in the Stars such a brilliant story – beyond the fact that it explores and sheds light on a crisis that is still occurring today – is it is told with an incredible narrative voice. Indeed, as Naila gradually learns the deception of her family, how they have conspired against her, and as she tries to fight the destiny they have forced upon her, I too shared her growing terror, her fear, and her growing helplessness as she learns how easily it is for her autonomy and choices to be taken away from her. I, too, wondered what she could possibly do in the face of her watchful family and the pervasive rhetoric from her family to accept her fate.
Of course, because the story felt so real and humanised, it made the story all the more emotional. I connected with Naila effortlessly. Even though I’m unfamiliar with Pakistani culture, I instantly connected with her narrative voice, and how it shone through as one that read and felt deeply personal to the author. At its core, Written in the Stars may be about forced marriages, but it is told through the eyes of a Pakistani-American teen who experiences the forced marriage itself. Through Saeed’s stunning prose and writing, the issue of forced marriages felt humanised through Naila’s voice.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Though released in 2015, Written in the Stars is just as important of a book today. The subject matter may be tough to read, but it is a short book and one that is excellently paced, and I highly recommend reading this nonetheless. It’s brilliance and its relevance remains to this day, and is a perfect read for anyone who wants to diversify their Asian reading.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Pakistani-American is forced into an arranged marriage during her family’s trip in Pakistan.
Perfect for: readers who want to learn about forced marriages; want to read a story about a Pakistani teen by a Pakistani author.
Think twice if: you are unable to handle the subject matter (see trigger/content warnings below).
Trigger/content warning: physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, manipulation, rape (explicit), forced feeding, forced drug use, forced marriage.
I’m so glad I read this book. After reading this book, I did a lot of research on forced marriages and their occurrence in New Zealand (where I live), and was shocked (and disappointed that I was shocked) that it happens here. I talked to my sister about this book too – she and I weren’t initially familiar with this the issue of forced marriages, but we had a great discussion. And it’s great that, even four years after being published, this book’s relevance can still generate discussion and facilitate learning and awareness today. That’s a profound thing, and I hope that others will read, learn, and become more aware too.
Additionally, this was my fifth book for Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, and I am so glad that I read it. I can’t wait to read more books, and learn more about the world around me.
- Have you read Written in the Stars? If so, what did you think of it?
- Have you read any other books by Aisha Saeed? Do you have any recommendations?
- What’s a topic or issue that you wish was explored more, or is an issue that is often invisible and you want others to be more aware about?