Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Author: Lillian Li
Publication Date: June 19, 2018 
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

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.

I have been reading the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy this summer and I was just craving some more literature from the world of a highly chaotic Asian family. This was exactly what I got with Number One Chinese Restaurant. Let me be clear upfront – this is about a comical, dysfunctional, and sometimes unlikeable family. Some of the characters suck – they are not good human beings and you will not like them, but isn’t that any family? We all have family members we could do without. The characters in this family are what pushed me to the end. I am an extremely character driven reader and this family was fleshed out from their vices to their virtues.

I could not put this book down. I was touched by all the characters and their stories. Li writes them so unbelievably realistically. She touches on some dark subjects and topics, but it was a surprisingly realistic glimpse into the lives of Asian Americans. The chapters are so strategically written – they end with devastating material that will force you to keep reading. You won’t be able to get enough!

The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese. All fifteen of them had crowded around the party table, clapping their hands. Not a single one could find the tune.

Together, they hugged the trunk of his body into a tackle that slowly brought him to the ground.

Illuminated by the two faux-Chinese lanterns affixed to the storefront, his face must have looked as shiny as the Peking ducks inside.

***A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers at Henry Holt in exchange for my honest review***

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