Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Lillian Li comes to the blog today with her debut offering, a story set in and around a popular Chinese restaurant in the Washingon, D.C. suburbs. Please read on for my review of

Number One Chinese Restaurant

Collected and constructed families, assimilation, personal fulfillment and struggles between family obligation, friendships and finding your own path: all combine in this story to present a story that brings forward the primary issue of personal happiness to the forefront. Told in multiple perspectives, there are several characters whose stories unfold, leading us to a climax that will press everyone to take a side, the story is a slow to develop read that ultimately paints a solid picture of the people and personalities at the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, a once hugely popular dining spot.

Jimmy Han and his brother Johnny are now the owners of the restaurant after their father’s death: but while Johnny travels frequently and yearns for the days when his father was alive and his responsibilities were not resulting in the tension between he and his brother, Jimmy has stayed behind to run the show. Called ‘The Little Boss’ by the staff, most having been at their jobs since the restaurant opened thirty years earlier, he’s always wanted more. He didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, but here he is, taking staffing direction from his absent brother while hoping and planning for his own dream of an upscale fusion restaurant that doesn’t just have the old standards on the menu- with one big exception, duck. He wants no duck at all in his new place. But funds are short, yet Uncle Pang has offered to ‘help’ him –the sort of help that should have him running in the other direction.

Feeling saddled with responsibilities and no say, as Johnny reinstated Nan to a hostess position, overseeing his all-too-Americanized daughter Annie, and Ah-Jack, the elderly waiter who’s health and physical deterioration have him better suited for retirement, if not for the constant protection and coddling he gets from Nan. There are other staff that hold their resentments like shields into battle, taking great pleasure in Nan’s discomfiture with her son Pat, now a dishwasher with a surly attitude since being expelled from school. They are friends, “if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.”, with all of the secrets, experiences and attitudes that come from it. But a tragedy could mean the end of the restaurant and dreams for many, if this diverse group, so similar in their ways, cannot find new ways to redefine their lives.

None of these characters is completely good or bad- sure Jimmy is a bit selfish and whiny, and Johnny is a runner – desperate to have a better relationship with his daughter Annie, but afraid to reach out to her. The teens, Annie and Pat are typical teens – cocksure and confident while making all the worst choices in their efforts to distance themselves from their parents, without really feeling as if they have a place among their American friends or their Chinese families. There’s Nan, Pat’s mother, spending all of her hours working and giving to others – from providing special treats and feeling as though she didn’t do enough for Pat, to worrying about her long-term connection and friendship with Ah-Jack – a married man who is untethered and always looking for validation- flirting and playing on Nan’s affection for him. Oh the personalities and interior dialogues are golden here – with wonderful description and frequently brilliant phrases that bring a sense of a person to light. Li has created a rich atmosphere, rife with challenges interior and exterior, to give us a sense of each person’s struggle for their own place in the world, even when things go hugely off-script. A lovely debut, certain to please those who prefer a slower pace and plenty of input that fills the story with perspectives that clash, combine and complement one another along the way.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Title: Number One Chinese Restaurant
Author: Lillian Li
Genre: Assimilation, Chinese, Contemporary Fiction - Adult, Family Saga
Published by: Henry Holt & Co
ISBN: 9781250141293
Published on: 19 June, 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 304
Audio Length: 11 Hours: 53 minutes
Rated: four-stars
Get Your Copy: Amazon Barnes&Noble iTunes Kobo Downpour IndieBound GoogleAudibleDirect from Publisher
See this Title on Goodreads

An exuberant and wise multigenerational debut novel about the complicated lives and loves of people working in everyone’s favorite Chinese restaurant.

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.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.


About Lillian Li

Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, as well as Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award. Her work has been featured in Guernica, Grantaand Jezebel. She is from the D.C. metro area and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Number One Chinese Restaurant is her first novel.


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