The Hippo


Jul 22, 2019








A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
(Ballantine Books, 304 pages)


This summer, Crazy Rich Asians has taken the silver screen by storm as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has made similar waves on the small screen. From the opulence of Singapore to the awkward fishbowl experiences of high school, American audiences have gotten the chance to engage with sympathetic Asian-American leads. It’s refreshing to see the stories of Chinese American and mixed-race Korean American women told to broad audiences at a time where Hollywood insists on whitewashing characters intended as Asian. And at a time when immigration is more hotly contested than ever, it’s exciting to see a novel that engages with the hardships that immigrants face while maintaining a satirical wit, situational humor and straightforward laugh lines.
On its face, A River of Stars is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story of single mother Scarlett Chen. In China, she escaped her rural upbringing and became a supervisor at a factory, where she fell into a passionate love affair with the older, married Boss Yeung. (Throughout the novel, she always refers to him as such, despite conceiving a child with him. First and foremost, that is his defining trait as a character, a class above Scarlett, driven home by the fact that he and his “legitimate” daughter also think of him as “Boss Yeung.”) Hua thoughtfully examines survival, China’s one-child policy and the American dream through flashbacks told throughout the story. The more Scarlett forges a life for herself and the child on American soil, the more she can relate to her own single mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship. But the darkness of Scarlett’s past is contrasted with the potential brightness of her future, and her child’s, in the United States.
The story begins with the eight-months-pregnant Scarlett at Perfume Bay, a “spa” of questionable repute for pregnant Chinese women based in Los Angeles. Right off the bat, the absurdity of Scarlett’s situation will have readers guiltily stifling their laughter. Most pregnant women are given preferential treatment in public spaces, but when they’re surrounded by other pregnant women, who is entitled to extra pampering? The fact that Scarlett is a working-class mistress treated with equal respect by the owner of Perfume Bay makes Scarlett’s wealthy peers rife with jealousy. But when Scarlett receives shocking news from one of her sonograms, she knows Boss Yeung will not only pull the plug on her stay in Perfume Bay but also make her return to China a living hell. A house full of hormonal mothers-to-be is a powder keg ready to explode, and it only makes sense that the inciting match is a woman going into early labor.
From there, the novel fast-forwards into a getaway chase. During the confusion, Scarlett steals a van, gives misdirection to strangers to throw the Perfume Bay boss and Boss Yeung off her trail, and discovers teenage stowaway and fellow Perfume Bay resident Daisy. Daisy has all but been disinherited by her Taiwanese parents for getting pregnant with a boy she has only met twice, so the 30-something Scarlett finds herself on a Thelma and Louise-like rescue mission. The two make an effort to escape Los Angeles and dissolve into the San Francisco Chinatown landscape, which is difficult for them to do as heavily pregnant women with matching jumpsuits. But the community quickly bands together to help Scarlett and Daisy find an apartment, safely deliver their babies at a hospital to guarantee their children’s American citizenship, and supply them with endless groceries and diapers. Now Scarlett and Daisy struggle to keep up with the monumental and ludicrous physical demands of new motherhood while the need to financially support themselves becomes pressing.
Hua elegantly ties together threads about the difficulties of immigration, the fierce power of motherhood, the determination of an entrepreneur and the undying bond of friendship. This poignant novel also reads as a fun romp. Readers see the lows of dirty diapers and swindling immigration lawyers, but they also see the highs of a successful food cart venture and babies discovering the world for the first time. As with this summer’s rom-coms, audiences will root for the protagonist to come out on top of their obstacles and get the happy ending. The ending thrums with hope and makes readers believe in a better tomorrow. A
 — Katherine Ouellette 


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