It has definitely been done before in books dealing with the crossing of desi and the west with a female lead, that there must be: forbidden love, physical and or sexual abuse, a a sympathetic side kick, and evil parents or in-laws. So, perhaps this book just assembles the ingredients in a new way, or my deliberate hiatus from said genre softened my heart with time. But, either way Written in the Stars was an enjoyable read that didn’t get caught up in the dichotomous rhetoric of good vs. bad, us vs. them, right vs. wrong, and I found that refreshing. It is in the AR database as a level 4.1 book, but there are sexual references and rape, so while it is written very simply and linearly, I would not let an elementary student read the book. The protagonist is 17, so really the story line is more high school relevant.
Naila is a senior at a Florida high school with scholarships and dreams to be a doctor. She has friends and stability at home. However, she also has a boyfriend, a big no-no to her conservative Pakistani immigrant parents. When she sneaks out to prom and gets caught her parents drag her to Pakistan and secretly work to marry her off. The premise isn’t very original, but the author keeps it interesting by having the boyfriend also of subcontinent descent, and Naila being naively clueless about what her parents and extended family are doing to her. As she begins to realize what her parents’ end goal is, she gets desperate to return home, putting her against her family. The story is quick and Naila is definitely a girl of action as she tries to escape, as she gets drugged, gets married and pregnant. And remarkably she doesn’t spend too much time bemoaning her situation, which is nice as the book is only 284 pages with the Author’s Note, Glossary, Resources, and Acknowledgements. A long the way you meet some kind characters and minor villains, you see a bit of the culture and Naila’s determination. The parents are underdeveloped and I wish they were fleshed out so that the reader could see their perspective. They are presented as pretty vile and cold and nothing more than that unfortunately.
WHY I LIKE IT:
At first I found it odd that religion was not in the book, like at all. Her rules regarding boyfriends and male friends are presented as being cultural. While in Pakistan and being shown around a cousin points out a mosque, tells Naila her father is in there, and if she wants to see inside they can come back when it isn’t pray time. That is it. So, the characters are Muslim, but Islam is not mentioned. The author on the jacket flap states that she is Muslim and had a good arranged marriage. So as I’ve reflected back on the book, I think I kind of like how she left religion out of it. Albeit leaving a gap in the narrative, it allows the book to be seen in a character driven way more than a “that’s how they do it” sort of way and thus opening it up to a wider audience. Also, seeing both good and bad in the same cultural population removes the idea that different is bad, which is often lacking in these “cultural” novels. I really want to meet the author and see what her reasoning is, but I think it was deliberate and thus I’m growing to appreciate her restraint on bringing the religious tinge into the book. I wish it was written a little more complexly. In addition to more about the parents, I wanted to know more about Saif, the boyfriend, I wanted to know about the future of her cousin Selma, who was her confidant, and about the aunt that never married, just to name a few.
There is kissing, and while not detailed, Naila is raped by her husband and it is implied and reflected on. There is some additional physical violence as well.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would consider this for a selection if I did a high school book club. Definitely not middle or elementary. I would possibly suggest the book to older middle school if they could handle it. There are lots of talking points, and some girls are so drawn to the romance genre that at least this one isn’t too over the top.