My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Summary: Phoebe is a factory girl who has come to Shanghai with the promise of a job - but when she arrives she discovers that the job doesn't exist. Gary is a country boy turned pop star who is spinning out of control. Justin is in Shanghai to expand his family's real-estate empire, only to find that he might not be up to the task. He has long harboured a crush on Yinghui, who has reinvented herself from a poetry-loving, left-wing activist to a successful Shanghai businesswoman. She is about to make a deal with the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the five-star billionaire of the novel, who - with his secrets and his schemes - has a hand in the lives of each of the characters. All bring their dreams and hopes to Shanghai, the shining symbol of the New China, which, like the novel's characters, is constantly in flux and which plays its own fateful role in the lives of its inhabitants. Five Star Billionaire, the dazzling kaleidoscopic new novel by the award-winning writer Tash Aw, offers rare insight into China today, with its constant transformations and its promise of possibility.
This was quite an enjoyable read and a pretty quick read for a book around 400 pages. The story of five people making their way (or trying to) in Shanghai and each being connected either directly or tangentially was engaging.
Phoebe was most interesting to me as she was an illegal-immigrant working and seeking a better life than the one she left behind in Malaysia. I often didn't like the way she went about attaining her goals but I also had enough empathy for her that her life beforehand had not afforded her better tools to work with. She didn't seem to have much of a moral center but there's never enough of her past given to let the reader understand her better. Still, she was most interesting to follow. I rooted for her to do well and cringed when things would go wrong for her. I also hoped for good things for her roommate, Yanyan. She was quite a sympathetic character in that while we don't witness it, it seems Shanghai life has beaten the ambition out of her and given her a case of depression and agoraphobia.
Yinghui was also an engaging character. Her present as a successful business woman who has moments of worry that she's lost her chance for love was captivating and well balanced with the recounting of her past as a modern girl of privilege and daughter of seemingly a corrupt civil servant. Her life is split in two at a particular point and is one of the best threads of the book. She, is arguably one of two central characters here. She and the Five Star Billionaire are more than any others central to this story and connected in simple and then surprising ways. I loved that, even when it hurt to read those reveals.
I was drawn more to the female characters than the male though there was nothing lacking in the male points of view here. Gary, the fallen from grace, pop star was endearing and made me hope for him to have a big win and be less lonely at the close of the story. While I found Justin sympathetic and was glad that he seemed to have found some sort of peace after his breakdown, I felt disconnected from everything that had to do with his feelings for Yinghui. It was so one sided and abstract that I just couldn't get it. I wanted him to find happiness with Yanyan. And finally, there's Walter. He was interesting but I still don't know entirely what made him tick. His backstory and present are well laid out but he still felt remote and perhaps that is the point of the character as his elusive nature keeps him isolated from others which seems to attract others even though it presents a certain danger. He didn't surprise me but I had hoped I was wrong or something deeper would be revealed by book's end.
Finally, here's to Shanghai! I loved how immersed I was in this book and reading about life in a big, cut-throat city that makes New York look like a school yard. I loved that to these characters making it big had nothing to do with going to the West. I loved that stars loomed large and not a one were from the West. The descriptions of the taste of the city and all the sounds and smells were so vivid. I also love that this reminded me that I've two books by Kevin Kwan on my TBR list and really want to get to those. Now that I've read about the hard scrabble life in Shanghai I want to look in on the other half. Definitely recommended.