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'Five Star Billionaire' Shows The Human Cost Of Progress
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'Five Star Billionaire' Shows The Human Cost Of Progress

Book Reviews


A new novel tells the story of five people who moved to Shanghai looking for certain kinds of success: love, money, fame. The book is called "Five Star Billionaire." The author is Tash Aw. In 2010, Aw told NPR that many of his characters are trying to figure out where they belong. Our reviewer, Ellah Allfrey, points out that success is not the same as belonging.

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: The plot may seem familiar, simple even: a poor boy claws his way from rags to riches, a country girl tries to make it in the city, a city girl proves herself in the world of business, a rock star falls from fame. But Tash Aw's "Five Star Billionaire" goes beyond the bounds of the ordinary. The story is set in Shanghai. We're in the middle of China's modernization. Everyone's hoping for a piece of the new economy.

And dispersed throughout the book are passages addressed to aspiring tycoons. Choose the right moment to launch yourself, and always rebound after each failure. Writing these is the mysterious five-star billionaire himself. For most of the book, we don't know who he is. But he explains the hard work and guile that have made him a success through these little homilies.

And reading them is Phoebe, a young woman from a rural village who steals an ID card so she can work in Shanghai. She lives off instant noodles to save up for a high-quality fake handbag that she believes will impress her Internet dates. And she gives Tash Aw a way to explore the human cost of this consumer culture. There's a desperation in Phoebe. And in the end, it's her quest that exposes a society devoid of sincerity.

In the course of that quest, Phoebe develops an online relationship with Gary. He's a pop star who rose to fame and then crash landed, hard. As their friendship develops, they type out conversations late into the night. But it's a false intimacy. They never meet face to face. They never tell the whole truth. And for the reader, what you're left with is a sense of squandered opportunities.

There are other characters and other lives described here, but you'll have to read the book to find out about them. And you should read it also for Tash Aw's gentle compassion and keen understanding of the human condition. You'll root for his characters as they succumb to a city where everything seems possible. You'll hope for them to succeed, even though, as Tash Aw shows us, success is ultimately a pretty conflicted business.

CORNISH: The book is "Five Star Billionaire" by Tash Aw. Ella Allfrey is our reviewer. She's the deputy editor of the literary magazine Granta.

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