Naila is a seventeen-year old Pakistani girl, living in the U.S., on the verge of graduating from high school and entering a six-year medical program. Her parents are controlling and over-protective, but are generally supportive of her plans for the future. Among the many rules they have, including no sleepovers with friends, the number one rule is "No boyfriends!" Naila is generally an obedient daughter, but she knows that she'll be going off to college soon, and will be free to live life on her terms, which involves going out with her friends and finally openly dating her boyfriend, Saif. When her parents discover her clandestine relationship and decide a family trip to Pakistan for the summer is in order, Naila's only comfort is the time spent with her big, boisterous family and knowing that it's "just for the summer"- until it isn't. In the blink of an eye, Naila's marriage to a boy she doesn't know is arranged, and she soon learns, through sickening scenes, that cultural traditions and family honor mean more to her parents than she does. Will Naila ever have a life to call her own? Will she survive the life that has been forced upon her?
Written in the Stars is without a doubt, one of the best books I've read this year. It's a relatively short book, at only 304 pages, and it kept me reading to the point of finishing it within the span of an afternoon. The pacing is spot-on, and the plot transitions seamlessly scene to scene. I must've been a sight, trying to read while on the gym elliptical, eyes widened and mouth opened in shock!
This is less of a love story and more a snapshot of the beliefs and practices of many traditional families in South Asia, including -yes, even now- arranged and forced marriages. Naila's parents are super traditional. They closely monitor Naila's every move, stress the importance of tradition and honor, and communicate only with people of their own culture and background. Though the reader may not necessarily agree with their beliefs, it's clear that they adhere to them sincerely. Even when subjecting Naila to horrific abuse, their actions truly are spurred by wanting to do what they believe to be the right thing by their family honor. This may be the most difficult aspect with which the typical American reader can connect. I'd wager that most readers, while they were perhaps raised by strict parents, never had their will and entire identity taken away from them. It's devastating, heart-rending, and unfortunately for many girls today, all-too-real.
However, not all found within this book is shocking and sad. There are glimpses into how closely-knit Naila's family is, and I often found myself smiling as Naila described watching her mother and various auntys in the kitchen, gossiping while making roti and sabji, and as she bantered with her many cousins. One thing I love about South Asian cultures is how much emphasis is placed on family and on being together. I come from a rather small family and my significant other must have several dozen cousins, many of whom he talks to on a daily basis! Naila's family is no different in this regard, which makes it even harder for the reader to digest how she is eventually treated by the ones who are supposed to protect and love her.
The message is clear: life is a big, beautiful mess. It is imperfect, contradictory, and confusing. To survive the hard times, we must dig deep for strength and peace of mind, even as the world crumbles around us. That is what Naila does, and the ability to do so despite her circumstances is what makes her such an incredible character. She is clearly smart and witty, and though she wants more independence, she is also eager to be obedient and respectful. Her relationships with her best friend and boyfriend, Saif, are sweet, though they do eventually take a backseat to the overall plot. The relationships she develops while in Pakistan, including with the boy she is being forced to marry, are more fleshed out, and allow the reader to see the culture through a different perspective.
As I said, this is not necessarily a love story, and while Naila's narration foreshadows a dismal end, there is a plot twist that will leave you on the edge of your seat, eager to know what happens next. Ultimately, you will ache for Naila, you will despair for her, you will hope for her, and most of all, you will understand her.
Written in the Stars is addictive and gripping, and will leave you thinking about Naila's plight long after you've turned the page. And it is right that you should continue thinking about Naila, because as Aisha Saeed points out in her Author's Note at the end, Naila represents thousands of girls around the globe who are actually living her life. Aisha is also careful to point out that there is a difference between an arranged marriage, which is a willful, peaceful agreement between the couple and their families, and a forced marriage, which is anything but. She also offers resources for girls who may be facing a similar predicament, and I hope that this will be a beacon of light in an otherwise bleak situation.
Are our destinies really written in the stars? Read Naila's story and decide for yourself, dear reader.
Following Written in the Stars, I also highly recommend reading 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger and The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi, which are two of my other favorite reads thus far in 2015.