Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, which will publish June 19, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
From the publisher:
The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay. Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.
Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.
Number One Chinese Restaurant has some of the most realistic characters I’ve read in a long time. I have to say, the first chapter was a bit overwhelming as everyone was introduced at rapid fire, but once I grew to get to know everyone individually, I had no trouble at all working my way through the novel. This book is less a saga than a quick glimpse into the lives of restaurant staff as something unspeakable happens to their second home. Thus, the characters felt a bit under-developed, and not much time was spent explaining the motivations behind their actions, but I think this story is more about the restaurant collectively than the individual people inside of it, so Number One Chinese Restaurant was successful in sharing the story Li meant to tell.
Li really emphasizes the strong, intimate connections between restaurant staff workers and the unique, family-like bond that they share. The restaurant itself felt like a character, and that’s one the the things I loved most about the book. The ambiance that Li created surrounding the Beijing Duck House (and later the Beijing Glory) was truly phenomenal and unlike anything else I’ve read. This ambiance paired with a complex ensemble of characters resulted in a heavily enjoyable reading experience. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about what an amazing film Number One Chinese Restaurant would make. Li really sets the scene and makes you feel a part of the story.
Lillian Li’s debut is a quick, fun read that will have you ordering dim sum faster than you can say “Number One Chinese Restaurant!”