Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
Aisha 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.
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.