Review: A River of Stars

by Vanessa Hua (Ballantine, 2018)

Scarlett Chen (pregnant mistress of her employer, Boss Yeung) travels to California. She’s a guest at Perfume Bay, a hotel-like birthing center owned and operated by savvy and devious Mama Fang. The concept is that birth-tourism babies automatically achieve American citizenship, assuring their glittery future. A River of Stars delivers suspenseful plot twists, often-humorous storytelling, and splendid multicultural details.

When she discovers that her unborn child is a daughter, not a son, Scarlett flees Perfume Bay, disrupting Boss Yeung’s plans for an American-born son to inherit his business dynasty. Scarlett and teenager Daisy escape into a future that’s defined only by their gumption in the land of infinite opportunity. They navigate San Francisco Chinatown’s alleyways. They give birth thanks to public health, and survive by scavenging. Scarlett finds a cast-off toy caterpillar and takes it home as her daughter’s first toy.

“She’d seen that caterpillar—many, in fact—at the toy factory where she used to work, before shed taken the job at Boss Yeung’s […] Not a trace left of the factory’s harsh chemical reek of plastic and rubber, the dizzying paint fumes, the stink of the industrious. Maybe she knew one of the women whose hands had touched this caterpillar, stuffed in the fluffy fibers, attached the shiny eyes, and sewed the body closed.”

Storytelling like this illuminates connections between distant geographies, and also builds narrative bridges between Scarlett’s past and present.

Daisy and Scarlett create safe haven in a crumbling transient apartment known as “Evergreen Gardens”. As new mothers, they’re emotionally supported by a cast of “busybody grannies” and “aunties” and the indomitable, grandfatherly Od Wu.

Scarlet names her baby Liberty Chen.

“Liberty. A name Scarlett had picked because of its meaning and its chiming syllables, bright as bells. She couldn’t predict or control what her daughter inherited from her and from Boss Yeung, but she could teach her to define the world by its possibilities and not its limitations, something she hadn’t learned until she left home.”

All the while, Boss Yeung is desperate to find Scarlett and his infant (for complicated reasons). Many plot twists and a few coincidences round out this story.

Hua weaves Chinese tradition with California-style reinvention throughout the book. “When her daughter cried without end, Scarlett strapped her onto her chest and walked ceaselessly, like a soldier on Chairman Mao’s Long March.”

Book groups and fans of contemporary novels that push the definition of “family” like Kaui Hart Hemmings’ How to Party with an Infant, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers will savor A River of Stars. Accompanied with a plate of hanbaobao pork buns.

Karen Lewis