A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua (Ballantine Books 2019)
Reviewed by Amaya Hunsberger
Vanessa Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, follows the path of Scarlett, a pregnant Chinese woman while the child’s father, Boss Yeung, wishes to do business in America. She is sent to Perfume Bay in San Francisco where she and other pregnant Chinese women will deliver their children in secret in order to ensure American citizenship for their babies. The whole operation is run by Mama Fang, a lucrative entrepreneur. After finding out that her unborn child is a girl, she escapes the facility with a teenager named Daisy, and together they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown. There, they rely on the generosity of a new community and their own ingenuity in order to survive.
Daisy is particularly useful when smoothing out Scarlett’s rougher edges as they interact with neighbors, clients, and charity volunteers who offer them assistance. As luck would have it, they are able to be there and lean on each other completely when giving birth, further cementing their connection until they become “Sisters not by blood but by choice.” This bond serves as a reminder of the power of family, both given and chosen.
Mama Fang is a self-made woman, and uses her connections and creativity to create business opportunities where she profits off of the wealthy. Lacking in a conventional education or training, her skills and qualifications are self-taught and exaggerated when necessary. Mama Fang realizes, much later in life then Scarlett, that distrusting those who offer help isn’t always the right move. As Hua so succinctly puts – “if you only looked out for cheats and con artists, you only found cheats and con artists.” In every way that Mama Fang was unable to overcome the darker aspects of her ambition, Scarlett is given the opportunity to choose differently. In their exchange just before the events that would send them in different directions, Mama Fang tries to convince Scarlett to give up her baby and let Boss Yeung raise him.
Scarlett also opens a hanbaobao food cart to support her new family, a difficult task that Daisy in her youth does not appreciate. It takes this physical distance to bridge the emotional gap that Scarlett placed between herself and her mother so many years ago, “The longer Scarlett had been a mother, the more she understood Ma and her decisions.” Now Scarlett is a mother, unprepared and overwhelmed by her new charge. Though her mother could not fulfill what Scarlett perceived as an adequate childhood, Scarlett attempts to with her abundance of acquired knowledge. However, this is not enough, and she continues to face setbacks that lead her to realize how unfair she’d been to pass judgement.
As Scarlett looks through a pile of reusable goods, she finds a plush caterpillar for her daughter which causes her to reflect on her own past, in the factory that made them, and her own role in the toy’s journey to her hand at that moment – “Long before she’d known she would come to America, her touch had rippled across the ocean.” Scarlett marvels over the appearance of these trinkets made in China, ones not unlike those she had a hand in building and sending away. At the time she could not understand who would want them, only to now discover that their existence creates a need and that vacuum of wants and needs continues, so long as things seek to fill them. Scarlett had that same vacuum inside of her until all that mattered was the survival of her little family.
All of the characters in Hua’s novel do their best to conjure a home and a purpose for themselves as they navigate life’s shortcomings. A captivating read from start to finish, Hua’s novel is full of intensity as well as moments of tenderness that show the complexity of Scarlett and Daisy’s situation. I found myself particularly thrilled with the ending because of how it addressed the legacy of each character beyond the final sentences of the epilogue. Yes, the book ends but their lives are far from over.