Originally posted on Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at ROPL.org.
By Tash Aw
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Review by Sarah Nagelbush, Adult Librarian
Before picking up Tash Aw’s novel, I’d never read any of his books. It was the cover, of all things, that attracted me to the novel. As someone who’s interested in Chinese pop culture, a novel that involved a pop star intrigued me. I got more than just that story, of course. Five Star Billionaire is more than just a novel about one person, instead, it’s the lives of five young adults who end up in Shanghai for various reasons. The novel is told in alternating chapters, with the billionaire of the title inserting himself occasionally into the storyline, though his presence grows as the novel progresses. Although the stories are independent, they share a few things in common (not just the location). They are all stories of growth (though not always for the good).
What makes Five Star Billionaire so good is Aw’s ability to weave all of his stories together into one elaborate narrative. Although the characters who narrate the story never quite come in contact with each other (save through the billionaire himself), Aw manages to make it clear that they are all connected. He builds each of the character’s lives in such a way that we care about them — and so we can recognize them (they often go unnamed when they appear outside of their individual stories).
Throughout the novel, Aw sprinkles tidbits of Chinese (and Taiwanese) pop culture which many people won’t recognize — and it won’t take away from your enjoyment of the novel. But for the people who do (and I caught some, though not all, of the references) it’s one more thing that makes Aw’s book so good. Where Kevin Kawon’s Crazy Rich Asians (about Chinese immigrants to Singapore and old money) is an amusing romp through the worlds of the uber rich, Five Star Billionaire is a study in new money and trying to make money in the fast moving world of Mainland China. That’s not to say that it’s not fun or funny, because it is. But there’s a hint of desperation that runs deep throughout all of the characters in Five Star Billionaire (including our billionaire himself).
The conclusion to the novel comes swift and while each story resolves in one way or the other, Gary’s story (the pop star) was my favorite. Highly recommended, especially if you have an interest in China. But even if you don’t, Aw’s story shares the universal desire to better oneself and fulfill your dreams, even if sometimes those things are at odds with each other.