Published by Nancy Paulsen Books on March 24th 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?
Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.
When I was twenty-two years old, I married the love of my life. Both Pakistani-Americans raised in traditional families, our wedding was semiarranged by our parents. We met only once, surrounded by family, before getting engaged, and only a handful of times before our wedding day.
~ Author’s Note
Yes, your eyes are not playing tricks on you: This is a quote from the author herself, not the protagonist. I believe this to be very important because it sheds light on what was important to the author, what message she wanted to bring across.
This book is not about assessing whether arranged marriages are bad or not. It’s about the right to choose. And if you decide to let your parents pick someone suitable for you, it’s still your choice. Naila did not get to voice her opinion, and that’s the core of this book.
Naila is a sympathetic young character with dreams beyond the cages of her strict upbringing; she has a boyfriend, Saif, and she has just been accepted into medical school. Naturally, her secret relationship with Saif does not remain hidden from her parents. Determined to bring Naila back to her roots (because having a boyfriend is too “American” in her parents’ opinion), the family travels to Pakistan to visit their relatives in the aftermath of the been-busted-at-prom-in-the-arms-of-my-secret-bf disaster. It takes Naila a long time (several delays of flying back to the US) to figure out that she is not meeting all these friends of her parents for enjoyment, but because they want to inspect her as possible future bride-material for their unmarried sons. Thereafter, her ordeal and struggle against an arranged marriage begins – an ordeal which everyone around her perceives as being Written in the Stars. Screw the stars.
The writing was raw, and it hit me right in the feels. I’m not weepy but my eyes experienced some ‘increased humidity’ during this read. Naila’s fate was suffocating, as in reading about her being deceived, drugged, treated like a cow for sale (for the lack of better words), and not being able to intervene. It felt as if the world had united against her, and in a way, it had.
Naila’s parents are, as far as antagonists go, the villains in this book. Although I would’ve crossed all the deserts and the Atlantic to get away from them, I do believe they loved her the best they knew how. They believed they were doing Naila a service, that she had to be brought back onto the right path. Some conservative families warm up to Western culture when moving to the US/Europe, some cling even more vigorously to their old traditions. It seems Naila’s parents belong to the latter sort.
But if you expect to read one of these books where a woman is married to a stranger, constantly abused by her husband and then forced to flee across several countries to get away from an ill-tempered bastard – well, this is not that book. The mistreatments are harsh but are mostly inflicted by her own extended family (further, the graphics in this book are very subtle, since this is a YA book, after all).
My biggest issue with this book? It’s too short. It felt like Saeed had just taken the scissors and cut through the plot at a convenient point. I turned the page to find an epilogue when I did not yet expect one. Further, the underdeveloped romance between Naila and Saif. While the main part of the story does and should focus on the arranged marriage, I think their relationship is important enough to have been given more attention.
If you decide to read this, I recommend you read it with an open heart. As I have pointed out, this is not about judgement. Not on Pakistan, not on the Middle East, not on Islam. The content of this book should concern you neither as a Christian nor a Jew, neither as an American nor a European. It should concern you as a fellow human being. It should provoke sympathy for an individual and her fate, not hatred for a culture or a religion.
Arranged marriages remain a worldwide concern, not only in less developed countries. As the author has put it, this problem presents itself as a silent epidemic.
If you or someone you know needs advice or help, please contact: The Tahirih Justice Center, Offices in Arlington, Baltimore and Houston.
~ Aisha Saeed
And now excuse me while I go hug my parents.