Scarlett Chen came from nothing. Born into a poor family, she works incessantly, takes classes at night and eventually becomes a deputy manager at a factory in China. In her mid-30s, it finally seems like she’s in a good place. That is, until she gets pregnant by Boss Yeung, the married man who owns the factory where she works. So begins A River of Stars, a powerful debut novel by Vanessa Hua.
Boss Yeung is a successful businessman who, like Scarlett, worked his way up from nothing. With his wife he has three daughters, but yearns for a son. So, when an ultrasound determines that Scarlett is expecting a boy, he’s ecstatic. He sends Scarlett to a maternity center in Los Angeles that caters to wealthy Chinese couples looking to have their children in America (hence obtaining automatic citizenship). Think it sounds antiquated? It’s not: The novel is set in the 2000s.
Out of her home country for the first time, Scarlett struggles—especially when she finds out that the initial ultrasound was wrong and she’s actually having a girl. Afraid of how Boss Yeung will react, she decides to make a run for it and flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with Daisy, a young Taiwanese-American woman who’s also a resident of the center.
The novel hits its stride when it shows Scarlett and Daisy navigating life in an unfamiliar place and trying to build something from nothing. At a time when she should be enjoying new motherhood, Scarlett is overwhelmed and run down. Trying to make money for herself and her daughter, she sells Chinese food to American tourists. At the same time, she’s forced to keep one eye open for Boss Yeung, who’s made his way to America to track her down, as well as American immigration authorities, who she fears will deport her.