“My mother always says that when you fight destiny, destiny fights back. Some things, they’re just written in the stars. You can try, but you can never escape what’s meant to be.”
Seventeen-year-old Naila is the model daughter of two very traditional Pakistani immigrants in Florida. She makes perfect grades in school, and has been accepted to a selective six-year medical program for university. She doesn’t complain about not being able to attend soccer games, or birthday parties, or even her senior prom. But Naila has a secret; for the last year she has been dating Saif, a fellow Pakistani-American from a family that has been shunned by the community because his parents allowed their daughter to marry an American. When Naila’s parents inevitably discover her relationship, they decide a month in Pakistan will help her reconnect with her roots and forget about Saif. But it eventually becomes clear that her parents have another purpose for the trip; they are looking for a husband for Naila, and they want her to be married immediately, regardless of her wishes.
Aisha Saeed uses the first few chapters of Written in the Stars to establish what life is like for Naila with her traditional parents, in contrast to her friendship with Carla and her relationship with Saif. However, the narrative moves quickly to Pakistan, where Saeed spends a lot of time developing the family background, and characterizing their daily life. This approach is deeply humanizing, and is important because it both illuminates their motivations and makes them more nuanced than mere monsters once matters begins to escalate. Exposition quickly gives way to tension and suspense, as Naila’s efforts to resist only make the situation worse.
While the first part of the book focuses on the relationship with her family, the second part revolves around Naila’s ordeal as an unwilling bride in a household that is unaware of the coercion that has taken place. Here Naila faces the expected trials, from the marital bed, to a domineering mother-in-law, to a resentful, unmarried sister-in-law. Even the kinder of the two sisters-in-law, Feiza, encourages Naila to come to terms with her fate, lulling her into submission.
By contrast to the first two parts, the ending comes fast and is but a cursory sketch. Although Saeed highlights international rescue organizations in the resource section at the end of the book, it is interesting that the plot features a personal rescue orchestrated by Saif and his father. We don’t get to see Naila’s escape from Pakistan play out, or witness her first conversation with her parents after she has survived what they put her through. I felt that these far-reaching repercussions were at least as important as the horror of the ordeal itself, but they receive short shrift.
Although occasionally predictable, Written in the Stars illuminates the little-known problem of forced marriage. Thanks to her American upbringing, the idea never occurs to Naila until it is too late. The possibility that someone they know is in a similar situation might be likewise unthinkable to many Western readers. The book also clearly illustrates the difference between a forced marriage and an arranged one, a common cultural misunderstanding. Indeed, the main strength of Written in the Stars in the insight with which it portrays how parents might end up perpetrating such a crime against their own daughter.
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