Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the married owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. To ensure that his child—his first son—has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited, pregnant teenager who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.
Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she goes on the run by hijacking a van—only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.
As a new mother and a first-generation Chinese immigrant living in the United States, I knew A River of Stars would strike a chord, but I could not have prepared myself for how deeply. I met Scarlett and Daisy, our two main characters, when they were pregnant. They suddenly go on the lam, desperately trying to piece together a full life for themselves and their babies. As they both have very little to no family in the USA, they create a found family, and I am honored to have witnessed it as a reader.
Throughout the book, Vanessa Hua intricately ties motherhood, womanhood, and immigration together with the thread of policing and control.
The policing of women’s bodies begins immediately when the story opens at Perfume Bay, the facility where they are cared for when they are pregnant. They are given restrictions of foods they cannot eat and activities in which they cannot partake. If they disobey these restrictions, they can feel guilty and like lesser of a woman or lesser of a mother. This policing may lead to a sense of a complete loss of control over their bodies, as though they are solely to be seen as a vessel to nourish their babies and no longer as a whole, separate self as a woman.
The way Vanessa Hua addresses the issue of breastfeeding infants is true to reality. Breastfeeding may become a hugely personal issue for parents, especially with the cocktail of hormones involved. When breastfeeding does not come to fruition the way a parent has planned, they can feel guilty or resentful towards oneself and the baby. Some parents can feel that their body has betrayed them in a total loss of control, rendering feelings of disconnection or depersonalization from the body, which can be new and shocking. A fact that I learned through my own research in motherhood is that women are much more at risk for developing postpartum emotional disorders, if they plan on breastfeeding but it does not work out the way that they expected.
Another major facet of the plot dealt with immigration and juxtaposing Scarlett’s story, in the United States on an overstayed visitor visa, with Daisy’s story, as an American citizen. Immigration is an issue that many citizens know nothing about, from the details to the deadlines of paperwork. Politics becomes massively personal. How paperwork is filed all have implications on everything from whether one’s family can stay together and whether one can have a career, to basic needs such as medical care. The mental state of someone who is facing the threat of falling out of status and having to leave the country can be fraught with uncertainty and sometimes debilitating fear. In the story, one way that some immigrant mothers attempt to regain control is by policing the academic and extracurricular performance of their children, enrolling them in Little Genius and paying exorbitant tuition fees for the prospect of having them excel. This balance of control is a huge addend in the American Dream equation, sometimes played out in healthier ways than other times.
Vanessa Hua’s writing style lends a deeply relational feeling, as I saw the women traverse their relationships with each other, their friends, the government, and themselves. Boss Yeung, the father of Scarlett’s child, has three daughters and the potential prospect of having a son excites him, which is a traditional Chinese view. This knowledge, introduced early on, allows the reader a social gender-based lens with which to view the story, taking into consideration that both main characters are women. This lens is also useful when comparing Scarlett’s story versus Mama Fang, a Chinese woman from an older generation, whose babies are both fathered by extremely controlling men, but are different genders. They use different emotional distances from the situation to cope and regain autonomy and I saw how trauma evolves over time, and the interplay between gender and age.
The ending had me untangling intersectional cobwebs, and truthfully, I am still wrestling with how I feel about it. It involves a queer relationship and the fake relationship trope, and incorporates complex immigration and paperwork issues. I truly do not know how to piece together my opinion, nor do I think it is my place to piece it together. I would be interested to see a review from a queer immigrant POC, and default to them on the representation regarding how all three of these aspects intersect.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy “on the run” or undercover-type stories. You may feel a personal connection if you are a mother, have Chinese heritage, are an immigrant, or love found family stories. Your taste buds might also appreciate all the references to crisp, salty, savory roast duck!
In many ways, my reading was therapeutic and allowed me to unravel parts of my own pregnancy, delivery, and parenting experience. Scarlett and Daisy were my companions and I felt as though I was raising my daughter alongside them. I read in an interview that Vanessa Hua began writing this book when she was pregnant with her twins, and this story acted as a tether, allowing me to sense her companionship as well.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Two pregnant mothers escape a dangerous situation and flee to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Genre: adult literary fiction
Trigger/content warning: some detailed talk about bodies, the use of the word “transvestite”, generational and immigrant related trauma