Review: A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

I wanted to like this book but in the end was disappointed.  I was really interested in the story, which begins with a young woman traveling from China to the United States to have a baby.

Scarlett is going to a home in the U.S. for pregnant Chinese women, so they can give birth in the U.S. and give their babies U.S. citizenship. It’s an idea I’m uncomfortable with, a way to detour around the immigration system – but I’m also fascinated by the idea of how much people from other countries want to live in the U.S.

I found Scarlett unlikable in the beginning of the book.  She hates the home for pregnant women, and hates all the restrictions and pressure that come with being pregnant.  The baby’s father is married and her boss at the factory where she worked.  Now she’s in America having the boy he’s always wanted.  I could sympathize with her frustration and her fears, but also felt she was complaining a lot about a situation she seems to have just gone along with.

The book takes an interesting turn when Boss Leung tries to pay her to give him custody of the child.  In panic and anger, Scarlett takes the house van and makes a run for it.  She lacks U.S. papers and she knows Leung will hunt her down for the child.  She’s about 8 months pregnant — but she runs anyway.

This was a book where the plot and setting were interesting — I enjoyed reading about San Francisco and China.  I also appreciated this look at the U.S. from the perspective of an outsider – and at the same time a look at Chinese culture around friendship, parenthood, love, and independence.

And yet I never warmed to this book.  It had so much promise, but I felt the author always kept the characters at a distance. Scarlett becomes a survivor, but she’s not the nicest person, one who will turn on others when she needs to.  Often when it seemed Scarlett was going to really grow – for example, in her friendship with another young mother, Daisy – it seemed she pulled back and did something really selfish.  In fact, I found the character of Leung more interesting.

The character of Mama Fang was kind of strange.  Late in the book Hua tells her backstory, and we see how she connects and what her motivations are – but it’s not quite clear why that story is there.

What I liked most about this book was going back and forth between Leung and Scarlett.  I wanted more from the friendships Scarlett develops, and that’s what left me disappointed.  I also didn’t care for the ending, which felt tacked on.

Hua is a journalist, and this is her first novel.

Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Ballantine Books.  The book publishes August 15.

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