Riddle me this: what do you create when you combine a violin prodigy, “the Queen of Hell”, and an alien doughnut maker? If you are Ryka Aoki, you create a wild, delicious, devastating, hilarious brew. Does it hold together in a tight narrative? Light from Uncommon Stars does not. Does it thrill your senses and grow your heart? It absolutely does.
We are first introduced to Katrina Nguyen, a teenage trans girl, as she is running away from a brutal home, carrying her beloved violin. She is a beautifully articulated character, and a few sharply delineated encounters show us the hourly humiliations and violations that Katrina has lived with for most of her life. For Katrina, the violin is her escape and the best way she has of presenting herself to the world – a world that rejects her very being. She meets Shizuka Satomi, a reclusive world-renowned violin teacher seemingly by chance, and is offered the chance to study with Ms. Satomi and to live in her lovely Monterey Park home. While Ms. Satomi knows she is making a Faustian bargain with Katrina, Katrina makes it clear later in the book that she assumed there was a catch because all of her relationships have involved a quid pro quo. However, Katrina gains so much from the bargain – love, a boundless understanding of the violin and of music – that she is honored to uphold her end, no matter what it is.
Meanwhile, Lan Tran has purchased a donut store with a giant donut ring out front. She and her family are cranking out donuts with precision, while adjusting to life in Southern California. (As an aside, Aoki brilliantly captures so many subcultures, including the Southeast Asian-owned donut stores in Southern California (Here’s how Los Angeles became the donut capital of the U.S. (nationalgeographic.com).) She is the head of the operation that works like clockwork, but fails to capture the ineffable something that makes a donut worth pursuing. Ms. Satomi meets Lan, and slowly, and often revolving around wonderfully depicted food, they become friends.
Throughout, this is a book about how music can make and unmake us. How to create music (and by extension, other to create other things) is to be. Katrina’s final lesson from Ms. Satomi is: “With no need for a beginning, nor any reason to end, the music continues. And so, no matter who you are, where you came from, what sins you have committed or hurt you have endured … when you are alone and there is no universe left to remember you. You can always, always rewrite your song.”
There are many twists and turns along the way, and when I say twists and turns, it is a wild ride! Aoki goes deep into a number of areas, including violin makers and violin repairers, Chinese bar-b-que duck, the car culture of the greater Los Angeles area, and so on. The book centers on food and culture in the San Gabriel Valley, which, Aoki notes, “…resembled an Asian-American Monopoly board.” While there are these beautifully painted places, she also dips into small, poignant moment, as when Katrina names her violin Aubergine, because it is such an exotic, beautiful word to her. It is only later when she learns what it means, and yet, while her first impulse is shame (which is her general first impulse), she quickly embraces the humor of naming her beloved violin ‘Eggplant’ and she keeps the name. Also there is a lovely scene in which Ms. Satomi takes Katrina to the mall to buy clothes. What begins as a terrifying and shameful excursion as Katrina observes sneers and receives snubs becomes one of her greatest learnings: to seek the friendly or warm face in the crowd.
This is a flawed book – the scenes skip between characters almost willy-nilly; there is a whole lot of real estate devoted to the violin repairwoman that confused me; and the ending comes on pretty quickly with a deus ex machina; however, for me, the book was so delightful that I was happy to go down all of the side streets with Aoki (I felt I should have come up with a space-related ‘side street’ term, but couldn’t stretch it that far!).