Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Written In the Stars - Aisha Saeed

Written in the Stars
Aisha Saeed
Series: N/A
Genre:Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Since I had a lot of feelings, I'll make a checklist first:

1) This book is spilling over with realistic, complex characters.

2) The romance is as much of a heart-wrenching tease as Game of Thrones: it will rot out your heart and you'll eat it right up.

3) The language is so beautiful. 

4) The We Need Diverse Books team is incredible! The work they are doing is pivotal and is literally changing the face of literature as we know it. 

Okay! Here goes:

1) The Cast

Meet Naila: a high school student set to attend med school under a pretty tight scholarship. Her best friend is your dream best friend. Her hot soccer boyfriend is your dream hot soccer boyfriend.

Her parents, on the other hand, are not your dream parents. Describing them as over-protective is like calling the sun a light bulb. The book opens with Naila asking to go to a soccer game, and her mom giving her one of these:

Naila's clever. She knows precisely where it her parent's paranoia stems from. While always aware of her boundaries, she nevertheless chooses to say what needs to be said:
"It's not you I'm worried about. it's all the boys that would be there. Besides, Auntie Lubna is having a party tonight. Did you forget already?"
"Is Imran going?" I bite my lip, knowing the answer. . . . "Why can Imran skip these parties but I never can?" 
"What has gotten into you today?" My mother glances at me. "If you don't go, people will wonder. You know how they talk. Besides, your brother gets bored . . . " (Saeed, 7) 
It stems from the traditionally inequality of genders in most South Asian communities. Don't get me wrong: her father knows she means business."Imran struggles with basic algebra, but Naila? She's brilliant. She's worked too hard to get there. She can wait and get married later." (10) Still, whether or not he can recognize this, in his community it's all about familial respect and honor, and therefore, what's best for upholding the family in the eyes of a community her parents need, are prioritized over the needs of a developing young woman. (Which is why often in the book, other women will be shamed: Naila's cousin, for example, chose her partner outside of the familial arrangements, and is now a divorced mother of young children and an example to Naila of what will go wrong if she makes a similar choice.) And still, he chooses to teach Imran, 15, to drive, while Naila, 17, is denied this because . . . because "boys and cars" . . . seriously?

But damn, just writing that above paragraph took some dissecting, because Saeed doesn't make it boringly cut-and-dry. While her parents and their decisions are antagonistic to Naila's needs and wants, and are openly misogynistic the characters are, at least, genuine and not two-dimensional.

Speaking of complexity, I love the distinction Saeed makes between forced and arranged marriages. You can read a bit more on her blog here, Simply put, all forced marriages are arranged, but, as Saeed points out, very few arranged marriages are forced. it's like how all squares are rectangles, but very few rectangles are squares. In the current cultural tradition, the norm is that parents of female children receive marriage proposals. They discuss these marriage proposals and both children involved are informed and accept or deny this, and so it goes. Sadlythere's still discussion of this book on places like goodreads that use the terms interchangeably.

And make no mistake, Naila is drugged, coerced, and totally stripped of autonomy. She is stripped of her friends, her home, everything. She is expected not only to preform her duty but to genuinely thank and praise her parents for taking her back to her roots, to who she truly is. Which, as a 17-year-old, is a psychological slaughterhouse of emotional damage, because that's exactly what 17-year-olds need: to feel comfortable in their skin. Her parents are doing things with the right language of what's best for her and the wrong actions of what's definitely not best for her.

If you're cringing already, this book is going to wreck you.

2) The Romance

Okay seriously Saif is so incredibly adorable. This is a photograph of him. The picture might be a little blurry though:

Naila and Saif go through a lot. After a couple of chapters, they become separated by thousands of miles. There are botched phone calls, a failed embassy trip, it's everything you didn't know your heart could feel. I won't say much more on this only that it will give you the feels. Few books start out with the romantic interest and the main character already in love. But this one does that and I LOVE it because it gets to skip all of the awkward beginning part and we get a real sense of people who actively care and want to be in each other's lives and not . . . insta-love.

Even the person Naila is forced into a marriage with is not horrible. Amin is generally quite kind to her, enough that Naila comments on that. Enough so, that, when everything is falling apart, he's pretty much the only person other than Saif to be on her side.

3) Beautiful Words
I watch the trees along the road fly by as we drive past. It's almost summertime. . . . Elsewhere there are seasons. Leaves bloom green and then turn gold and crimson as they fall to the earth, change coming to everything in its path. Not here. In my world, the leaves stay green, the same Florida heat beating down on us, day after day, year after year, unchanging. But not for long. Soon things will change. Soon they will have to. I've spent my entire life banking on this truth. (8) 
The end sentences are particularly poignant once everything does change. Instead of going to college though, Naila is taken to her parent's home in Pakistan.

Saeed's narration is a fascinating, difficult trip inside Naila's, and a true journey into the mind of a betrayed, paranoid, deeply sincere and loving individual. It definitely took me a couple of pages, because it takes a couple of pages for Naila's voice to start shining. But once it does, oh man it gets tragic real fast.

Other thoughts:

One thing that shocked me was the lack of religious discussion in the book. Naila is cast into a lot of isolated, dark places. She could have seeked solace in god/s here, as characters are wont to do in most contemporary works. However, I understand why religion may have been left out: so there won't be blame cast elsewhere but the parents. Even though none of the South Asian religions in this case are really to blame, it's always difficult creating a nuanced perspective of any culture when you're writing it for an American audience. This is again why I think Saeed stresses that this forced marriage is not the norm, but still a problem. That way, an entire people and culture are not dragged into the mud, and instead it personalizes Naila's struggle with her parents. I for one still think I've been cheated of having Naila either struggle with her faith, or show her understanding of it to depart from her parents, but I also think that the book is perfectly fine without it.

There are only two "bad" things to say about this book. First, the dialogue, while usually fine, can sometimes read as slightly off, either because the character or because of what the story demands. Like Naila's mother mentioning that they are going to a party, once her father closes the family's dry cleaning business for the day. Clearly Naila knows this business exists. Only the reader benefits from the dialogue-info-drop. It doesn't happen too often, but often enough. Second, I wish there was more time for nuance in the book, more time spent on the difference between types of marriage and differences inside the culture as well. At times, the South Asian culture Naila stems from can seem like a monolith.This especially in light of the fact that the book drags on a little: to make it to 300 pages, and to keep up with the fast pace the author sets, the ending is stretched out and gets repetitive thematically.  I almost knocked two stars out because of this, but decided the quality of the rest of the book made up for it in miles.

To close: this book was wonderful.

- Marlon

What kind of over-the-top over-protective things have your parents done?
Let us know in the comments!

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