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Number One Chinese Restaurant

Review

Number One Chinese Restaurant

You have been to the Beijing Duck House before. You’ve gone with your family for a special occasion, you’ve gone with a few friends when you have a craving, you’ve driven past it on the highway. You’ve watched it close, renovate and reopen, all without giving it more than a cursory thought --- or at least not a thought decentralized from your own experience and your own cravings for Americanized Chinese food. Because it is an experience in and of itself, a workplace and an environment, a place of immigrants and family and skills and aches and love. The only readers who, most likely, have not been to the Beijing Duck House are the ones who have lived it.

Here, Lillian Li gives voice to a collection of individuals: the owner Jimmy and his brother, Johnny, the manager; Nan, the head waitress, and her dear friend, Ah-Jack, a longtime waiter; her son Pat, the 17-year-old dishwasher who was expelled from high school; and the manager’s daughter, Annie, the 19-year-old hostess.

"Li expertly crafts a deeply felt and beautifully evoked multigenerational narrative.... She skillfully maintains the balance of how families and loved ones can harm you more than anyone, and also can be there for you when no one else is."

When Jimmy and Johnny’s father passed away, Jimmy sought to finally free himself from their father’s restaurant and go on to open his own, without any real regard for how to recreate something well-established. Johnny tries to keep his younger brother’s ambitions in check while also refusing to recognize that his daughter is growing up, and who she’s becoming. Annie and Pat, thrown together, become caught up in each other, and their restless attraction threatens to blossom into something chaotic that they might not be able to contain. Their young and ruthless coupling contrasts to the longstanding relationship between Nan and Ah-Jack. They have both been married to other partners for decades, but have been each other’s closest companion --- quietly, tenderly and chastely --- for just as long.

For some readers, NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT will bring to light an environment they’ve been in many times. For others, it may read as something close to coming home. I fall somewhere in the middle, coming from an Asian immigrant family that has never run or staffed this type of restaurant. I felt both resonate, and I loved it.

Li expertly crafts a deeply felt and beautifully evoked multigenerational narrative. She ensures that her readers see the wit and humor of these characters while also acknowledging the restlessness, isolation and ache --- both physical and emotional --- that can emerge out of the immigrant experience, out of a restaurant that’s been established long enough to be thought of as a “staple” of a neighborhood. She skillfully maintains the balance of how families and loved ones can harm you more than anyone, and also can be there for you when no one else is. This book is heartful, tender, necessary and wise.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on June 29, 2018

Number One Chinese Restaurant
by Lillian Li

  • Publication Date: June 19, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 125014129X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250141293