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Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: 'Five Star Billionaire'

By Tash Aw
Literary fiction
July 2013
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0812994346

The tale of the up-and-down fortunes of five people trying their luck in Shanghai may not make the Booker Prize shortlist, but Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire is an entertaining tale that sheds light on the universal human desire to be counted.

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 make it.

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 ledger.

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 Billionaire.

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 character.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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