Written in the Stars: an authentic, grueling story about a problem all too common

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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Written in the StarsAisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars follows the story of Naila, a Pakistani-American teenager whose parents have always told her that she is free to be who she wants to be; she can choose what she wants to study, her profession in the future, what she wears and how she does her hair. But when it comes to marriage- when it comes to choosing a husband, her parents will make that decision for her. But here’s the problem: Naila’s madly in love with Saif, a fellow Pakistani-American student in her high school. When their relationship is discovered by Naila’s family, they make the decision to take her to Pakistan so she can connect with her culture and roots. But this trip is more than just a vacation, and Naila gets caught up in vicious, grueling web almost impossible to disentangle herself from.

Written in the Stars is not an easy book to read, despite its rather vanilla start. Initially, Naila’s parents come across as unusually strict, but ultimately people who love their child. Naila’s story may seem unusual to people coming from those cultures where arranged marriage is virtually non-existent, but her parents’ behavior in the start, their feelings of “honor” and “reputation” and “shame” are so authentically portrayed. As a Pakistani myself, I felt like I was reading the life story of so many girls and boys I know. Girls and boys who are free to do whatever they please, but cannot dream of falling in love and marrying who they are in love with. God, no, they couldn’t dream of dishonoring their families that way.

But this unpleasant (and pleasant, I know- it’s very confusing) sense of familiarity is shattered when the novel hits its 50% mark. Things de-escalate so steeply, so quickly that any sense of comfort is shattered. The book transforms from a vanilla contemporary to a genuinely terrifying, intense read about the extremes of arranged marriages. For those of you who do not know, arranged marriages aren’t usually forced. The parents set a boy and a girl up, and the two decide if they want to marry. In most circumstances, it is done with permission and respect. Which is how it should be. But much too often are people forced into marriage through coercion, through threats and blackmail, and Written in the Stars is that type of story. Fast-paced, told with such authenticity, sensitivity and poise, it is an important, albeit difficult novel.

Moving on from the subject matter, I thought I’d talk a little about the portrayal of Pakistani culture. It’s a shame, but I’ve never read a YA novel revolving around Pakistani characters, and the familiarity was refreshing. Aisha Saeed, a Pakistan-American herself, steers clear from stereotypes while also refusing to cover up the darker parts of the culture. Her unapologetic use of cultural phrases, integrating Urdu language into her narrative and dialogue so effortlessly is something worth taking note of. Her vivid descriptions of scenery, of clothes and food, the things our characters say, their expressions and norms- everything is so spot-on.

But despite my praise of the book, I will not deny that it has its own share of problems. Firstly, I didn’t think the characters were fleshed out as fully as they could have been. I recognize that it’s difficult to do this while also maintaining the pace and thrill of the story, which leads me to believe that the book would’ve hit even harder had it been longer, had more focus been put on the characters. The ending, too, seemed rushed. I won’t say that it’s a happy ending, or a sad ending because that defeats the purpose of the suspense, but I felt it was too quick a conclusion. If it were me, I would have expanded the climax a little more. The writing also felt a little simplistic- but I felt that balanced out the darker, more complicated nature of the novel. But ultimately, Written in the Stars has more good than okay, and is a book I’d recommend to anyone.

written in the stars

On Culture and Empathy

This is a little bonus section I’m adding to my review. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers. I read a couple of negative reviews after completing the novel that stated that Saif and Naila’s romance was unrealistic. Their reasons for this were simply that Naila and Saif did not ‘hang out’ enough for them to have such intense feelings. While I completely understand why this thought may manifest in someone who is used to Western notions of romance, I would like to offer up my own two cents.

In many ‘conservative’ societies – places in the Middle East and South Asia – men and women don’t mingle as freely. I’ll refrain from talking about other cultures, but as a Pakistani who has spent her entire life there except for the past three years, I am aware of the limitations imposed upon boys and girl. I am lucky enough to have parents that are not strict at all. They do not believe in arranged marriage, and they have given me most every liberty, every opportunity afforded to anyone else. I was never asked not to talk to boys- it’s just not who I am, and it’s not who my parents wanted me to be. But despite this, it’s not as easy for people in a society like that for people to hang out alone with the opposite sex. Even if your parents let you do that, you get side-glances and weird looks from people in even the poshest of areas, because that’s just what the culture is. I’m not saying it’s good- nor am I saying it’s bad, just that that’s how it is.

But falling in love is such a human thing. No matter what you tell yourself, no matter what society wants you to be, sometimes you cannot help it. I have been in a relationship for seven years – SEVEN – with a guy in Pakistan. I moved to the US almost three years ago, and since then I’ve been in a long-distance relationship. I have seen him twice since I moved, and if I were to count all the hours I’ve spent with him in the last three years, I’d say it’s less than two days. Less than two days. Does that make my feelings less valid?

Just because someone’s notion of romance and their way of staying in a relationship is different from what is the ‘norm’ in most Western cultures does not mean their feelings are invalid or weak or unrealistic. What does “realistic” or “unrealistic” in novels even mean? One person’s reality can be vastly different from another person’s and vice versa. To simply state that the romance is “unrealistic” simply because it depicts a polar opposite culture seems a little… apathetic to me.

I do not mean to disregard anyone else’s negative feelings about this book- it is a book, and thus people can have different opinions. Some of the negative reviews I read had very valid criticisms – I have criticisms too. But when it comes to calling the romance unrealistic simply because the two characters didn’t ‘hang out’ was something that bothered me, and I hope my counter-argument doesn’t come across as me trying to stifle dissent, or me invalidating someone’s opinion. That was not my intention, whatsoever.

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  1. Brilliant review as usual! <3
    I really want to read this book now. I totally agree with your counter argument. Love is a feeling that is patient, full of trust and respect. It doesn't need the other person to be in close proximity at all. Calling it unrealistic is like saying that your emotions aren't valid or powerful as mine because you don't have your partner physically present with you 24*7, so that you can "really" express them.
    The idea of a long distance relationship is something that really fascinates me. I of course have never had a relationship, let alone one which thrives on a long distance. But from what I know, it inculcates in us a sense of trust, respect, individuality and gives the partners an oppurtunity to grow and understand themselves and each other.
    Coming back to the book, I love the Pakistani Culture, dresses and vocabulary. It would be amazing to read on these from a YA book.

  2. First off, I’m so incredibly jealous that you’ve read this book. I’ve been wanting to for soooooo long now! I’ve read so many books regarding arranged marriages, and each time, my heart is shattered for the characters involved. Although it is part of culture, and many people say that it is sometimes easier to find love through this means, I find it so saddening to see the freedom to choose something so important taken away.

    I have to agree with you on the romance. Although I hate it when a relationship suddenly springs up in one or two lines, we also have to take the culture into consideration. For example, I once read a book about North Korea, and the love that two characters found seemed to come out of nothing. Though many think that’s a problem with the book, it’s really an aspect about the culture that we just don’t realize.

    I loved your review, and can’t wait to pick up this book for myself 🙂

    • I haven’t read nearly enough books on arranged marriage! I think this was the first one that deals with it in a realistic setting, rather than a fantasy one.
      Thank you so much for reading my review. <3 I hope you'll get to pick it up soon and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

  3. What a great review. I want to tell that it’s really refreshing getting a review from a person that knows the topic.
    Me myself don’t know about these issues and the reviews i read before weren’t very encouraging. Your perspective opened up my curiousity and i’ll be adding the book to my tbr.
    Thank you so much for sharing your opinion.

  4. I have this book on my tbr for so long but still haven’t read it. Arranged marriage are also a culture in where I live, although it’s only happened to some tribes/in some location, but I do know some people that went through these things. And we’re also pretty conservative here, opposite sex can’t mingle freely. Even in the city, some girls had been called bad names because they choose to hangout with boys (me included). I can’t wait to read this book and see how the culture is represented and told, and I really like the review and insight you provided <3

    • Thank you so much! I definitely think this book will mean more to people who can relate with it, especially because romance does play a big role. I hope you love it as much as I did if you do get to read it. <3 And thank you so much for your lovely comment; I appreciate it!

  5. I’ve read this book too and I agree completely that it’s not an easy book to read. The issues presented were VERY interesting and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, but I agree with you that the characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the ending was quite rushed, and the writing was very simplistic – there was a lot of telling instead of showing, for me, but I kind of understand that given that the plot moves very fast and drama is happening all the time.

    Although I’m not Pakistani, I also found myself relating to the whole honour/reputation/shame thing that you mentioned! I’m Chinese and while the cultures are obviously different, we also have that focus on “saving face”, and parents generally like to have a HUGE say in who their children marry. This book was very refreshing in that way, I think.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on the realism of the relationship with us! That part of the book didn’t bother me at all – I was more focused on the forced arranged marriage plot. All the best with your relationship too – I’ve done short LDRs here and there with my BF and it’s SO difficult.

    • It’s such a complicated concept, isn’t it? The whole “you can’t do this because you will tarnish the family’s reputation.” It’s so strange because you know you have the right to live how you want, but you also feel incredibly guilty for lying to the people who raised you and gave you everything when you were helpless. It’s such a complicated feeling, and it was very refreshing to read a book where something like that is given the attention. I’m curious: I know honor killings are a huge problem in South Asia and some Middle Eastern countries- do they exist in China as well? I’m not familiar, and I was wondering if you had any idea.

      Thank you so much for your comment, Reg. <3

      • Ahhh so while I’m Chinese, I’m actually fourth-gen Indonesian (my great grandpa migrated, etc., long story) so my culture is kind of like a watered down version of Chinese with a hint of Indonesian, I guess, though my extended family is incredibly traditional and tries very, very hard so that we’re still all Chinese. My parents, too, are very specific about who I date and marry, and let’s just say I’m not really doing what they want right now, so I can relate 100% to the whole “guilt vs. right to live” thing. 😛

        From my experience though honour killings aren’t really a thing – at least I don’t know/haven’t heard of anyone who’s involved in it. What I can think of is similar (though not the same thing) is the one-child policy and how people might abandon/kill their girl babies because they wanted a boy baby.

  6. Must be hard to have that long distance of a relationship. I dated a boy in Phoenix, and when I moved to Michigan, we tried the long distance thing. He came out twice in two years, but I was lonely. Eventually I met someone else when our relationship stopped having daily communication. I regret it because he was willing to move out here to be with me, but I just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.
    I applaud you and your efforts to keep your relationship despite the distance. Will one of you move eventually to be with the other?

    • Yes, it’s hard but I feel like I’ve gotten used to it by now! I think it helps that when I was in Pakistan, I didn’t see him as often as people in Western societies see each other- so when I moved away, it wasn’t such a huge change, although the crazy time difference is a challenge to work around. But yes, they can definitely be hard, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you. 🙁 But you shouldn’t regret something that you weren’t ready for at the time. That’s completely understandable! <3
      We're still young. He's planning on coming to the US for his graduate degree, so we'll see where the tide takes us, ha.


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