FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE
By Tash Aw
Spiegel & Grau
Phoebe is a young woman who has recently arrived in bustling Shanghai to try
her luck. Things appear to be going her way when a rich woman drops her ID card
at a coffee shop. Between that and the self-help advice she reads, such as the
adages in a book called Five Star Billionaire, Phoebe just knows she’ll
Justin is already near the top. His family has been rich for generations,
owning and developing property. He’s the one picked in his generation to be the
fixer, the one who makes sure things get done. His whole life is work --
meetings, society appearances, travel, paperwork. Not like his brother the
hipster and his girlfriend, who owns a cafe but doesn’t even know how to read a
Yinhui has worked hard as well, and is now a successful businesswoman with
several ongoing ventures. Her life revolves around work as well, and she is
poised to become even more successful.
Gary has come from nothing and nowhere to be a huge pop music sensation.
Winning a talent show and then going on to make hit after chart-topping hit, his
life is controlled every minute in service to his career and those screaming
girls who adore him.
Walter is the Five Star Billionaire author and a character who lives
in the shadows. He is the cog in this story that sets things going and, as his
story is eventually revealed, his reasons are made clear.
Written much in the style of a Kate Atkinson multiple narrative, the
connections among the characters draw them into each other’s stories. Propelling
them all is the other main character in the novel -- Shanghai. It is sprawling,
it is tightly packed, it rewards the ruthless and robs the trusting. Stopping to
smell the roses is not recommended in a cutthroat, fast-paced world, yet it is
something that many of the characters yearn to do.
Shanghai is as mysterious and unforgiving in Aw’s novel as it is in Bo
Caldwell’s Distant Land of My Father, a brilliant story of sophistication
and survival that encompasses WWII, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were
Orphans, a flawed but fascinating novel with settings that include the
International Settlement in Old Shanghai and a fantastical city that could not
exist in reality, but which seems to be mirrored in Five Star
In Aw’s novel, Shanghai is not just the exotic locale it often is to
Westerners. This ultra-competitive world is recognizable to anyone who sees the
way that financial success is deemed the ultimate goal for so many in today’s
world. The goal of making money for its own sake, for respect and to get even
with anyone who tried to hold you down is as much a part of American society as
it is in Shanghai.
The grace of Five Star Billionaire is that the human motives behind
the drive to succeed, and the wanting to connect with other human beings even if
it takes time away from a business meeting, underlies the story arc of each
©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission