Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.
“He’d waited to book her stay until he knew she was having a boy, but objecting to such a preference would have been like objecting to gravity.”
When Scarlett Chen finds herself pregnant with her boss’s son—a married man decades her senior with three grown daughters—he ships her off to Perfume Bay, an underground American maternity hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, run by the shrewd and enterprising Mama Fang. A lifelong factory worker from the poor countryside, Scarlett is surrounded by rich, cliquey urban women who hope to ensure the best possible lives for their children by giving birth on American soil. The only other outsider is a Daisy, a pregnant Taiwanese teenager whose parents plan to pass off her baby as a younger sibling. When a new ultrasound upends the assumptions that landed Scarlett at Perfume Bay in the first place, she runs away with Daisy, who is desperate to find the missing boyfriend who fathered her child. Alone together in San Francisco’s Chinatown, they must figure out what their new lives will look like, even as they are pursued by Boss Yeung’s investigators.
While focused mainly on Scarlett, A River of Stars incorporates three narrative points of view, also including Mama Fang, the proprietor of the maternity hotel, and Boss Yeung, the father of Scarlett’s child. The additional perspectives are introduced after Scarlett runs away from Perfume Bay, adding the tension of pursuit to the story. Meanwhile, the main arc follows Scarlett and Daisy, and their newborns, into San Francisco’s Chinatown, showing that while an American birth certificate is supposedly a golden ticket to a better life, starting a new existence in a new country is far from easy. While Daisy has citizenship because she was born in the United States when her parents were grad students, Scarlett desperately searches for a way to fix her papers before her visa runs out. If she goes back to China, she knows that Boss Yeung will be able to take her baby, and that she may even be punished for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The novel is rich in the complexity of the many and various situations that bring Chinese immigrants to America, along with their own class backgrounds, cultural assumptions, and ideas about family.
Although A River of Stars incorporates three perspectives, there were some interesting characters that we do not get to hear from. Daisy is a character we see largely from Scarlett’s point of view, and her characterization is not always deep. Scarlett can muster little sympathy for Daisy’s hopefulness and romantic ideas, and so she often comes across as an entitled child when seen through Scarlett’s eyes. Daisy features rarely, if at all, in Mama Fang’s sections, and is largely unknown to Boss Yeung, except as a potential accomplice to Scarlett’s escape. While I found Mama Fang interesting, particularly as we learn about her background, I didn’t care much about Boss Yeung’s reflections on his behaviour, or his potential regrets as he simultaneously faces fatherhood and his own mortality. I was more interested in his eldest daughter, Viann, who risks being displaced by the birth of an illegitimate brother. I would have liked to see inside her perspective, particularly as her father begins to entertain suspicions about her paternity.
Point of view contributed significantly to my feeling at a remove from certain key characters, like Daisy. However, Hua’s writing style also played a role. It was not uncommon for her to choose to have Scarlett recounting or think about events after the fact, rather than portraying them in the moment. Often I would anticipate a significant event or upcoming confrontation, only to find that I was not going to get to see it actually play out, but would instead get to read about the aftermath. We see this when Hua sums up what Daisy said or did during an argument with Scarlett, rather than actually writing the dialogue, for example. These choices left me feeling slightly disconnected from a story which I otherwise found thematically interesting and full of great potential.
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