Number One Chinese Restaurantby Lillian Li Published 19 Jun 2018
|Number One Chinese Restaurant.pdf|
|Publisher||Henry Holt and Co.|
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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.
"Number One Chinese Restaurant" Reviews
Actual Rating 3.5
Content Warning: Cancer, Alcoholism, Mental Illness, Organized Crime
A refreshing view into the lives of people through their association with The Beijing Duck House and the people who run it. The book switches between three main point of views, Jimmy Han the owner of The Beijing Duck House, Nan the manager of the restaurant and Ah-Jack an aging waiter who is struggling to support his sick wife. The author does a great job of creating realistic characters that aren't clearly good or bad. Jimmy is a selfish person who still cares deeply about the people around him, Nan is a overly devoted woman who puts herself last, and Ah- Jack is a self indulgent man who is coddled by his friendship with Nan. They don't all get along seamlessly but created a support system for each other.
"They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together."
This book is about people desperately trying to do what's best for themselves. All of the characters make questionable choices, throughout the book they have to face consequences for their misguided choices. This is a great character study that illustrates how hard it can be to exist in our realities while dreaming for something better. The Han family is strained by the deceased father's ways of keeping the restaurant going and resentments that have stewed against each other for decades. Pat, Nan's son and Annie, Jimmy's niece, are two rebellious teenagers who are in the sweet spot of adolescence where their own morality and limits seem fictional. They were as wise as most teenagers are.
"What did these people want when they said they wanted nothing but her happiness? Nobody was without motive or desire."
The characters and setting of this book kept me reading although I wanted the plot to move along faster. I was engaged the whole time, but thought the pacing and flow of the book could have been better. The ending left me with questions I wished were resolved, but did wrap up the main conflict. Overall this was a strong debut with diverse characters set in a place I wanted to learn more about.
Recommended for readers who:
- enjoy multi generational stories
- want a character driven novel with flawed characters
- can tolerate an ending that doesn't neatly close things up
I received an advanced reader's copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I received this book from NetGalley and was excited to dive into a fiction that dealt with themes surrounding the Chinese restaurant life. I personally grew up as a product of this very niche subculture. I think that Li does some things well here. She illuminates the generational barrier that disallows a conventionally intimate relationship between 1st gen parents, who toil endlessly to pave the way for their progeny, and the 2nd gen children who yearns for the existence of some kind of a relationship and even at times resent the unwelcome gift of toil. She exposes, in rare occasions, that a language barrier can inhibit what communication there is left between generations. Her minor characters, in a restaurant setting where most of the book takes place, have fleeting qualities that lend to the vapid impressions and homogeneity of each character - this is very much accurate to the environment. She dabbles with the organism of Chinese microeconomy and microcosm that would exchange progressive methods of enterprising a restaurant in exchange for loyalty to your people. The cultural differences certainly collide when a business is passed on to children with a completely different framework of goals in enterprising.
Even so, I had my qualms with this effort. The title was never really referenced within the story and the concept of being 'Number One' may have existed when interpreting the competing restaurants between the Duck House and the Glory - but this is never clearly defined as that sort of relationship. The characters were very shallow. The context for each character was never illuminated enough to justify and make sense of some of the decisions they made. For as much as Jimmy/Johnny's father was spoken about as the elephant in the room, and as much as his legacy casted a narrative arc over this story, we don't know much about him. The progression of the plot was much too abrupt and at the same time underwhelming. The plot really didn't take any twists or turns - Jimmy wanted the restaurant burned in order to establish his own legacy apart from his father's so I Chinese godfather figure with immunity came in to set up the fire and the deed was done. Nan & Ah-Jack's story felt like a parallel story that could have existed independent of the story as a whole.
Personally, growing up with my parents in the restaurant business, I can attest that seeing their insurmountable flaws was easy. But as I grew up, their redeemable qualities began to wring out endlessly. I felt like NOCR attempted to justify and make sense of why our relationships with the 1st gen Chinese restaurant working parents may have been so poor, but failed to illuminate the very precious qualities that our 2nd gen eyes were not able to cherish. The redemption is certainly there and we just have to point our flashlights at it.
This novel is a feast to me in many respects. First, it is full of psychological dramas in multiple main characters, not only about the conflicts in their minds as they act, but also including sketches of the psychological development in their lives. These owners and workers of the Chinese restaurant confess and tell their life stories, in addition to the restaurant scene as seen from a narrator. As a bonus a work scene of cooks of a non-Chinese restaurant is also depicted briefly but vividly. The second strong point to me is the portraiture of various relationships between teenagers and their parents, mature brothers, they and their mother, unusual lovers, they and they respective spouses, etc., most of them quite chilly in nature, but others bitter-sweet. On top of these two aspects, the book is peppered with philosophical wits and some streams of consciousness, both of which I like as well. Lastly, this novel is not lacking plots and suspension, although usually I myself am not particularly after. All these are crafted within less than 300 pages, quite amazingly.
I liked this book but don't think this would be a story that I would read again. I like the cover and I like the characters but don't like how none of the characters really understand each other.and I feel there is too much going on at once. I worked at a Chinese Restaurant for years and I still felt that it was lacking something. The book was likable enough and I do feel that some will enjoy this very much so they could learn how things work in different cultures and the different communication through the characters will be humorous at times and enjoyable. This may not be the title for me but I see a lot of potential in the story line and I am interested in checking out the author's other works.
Although restaurants provide centerpieces of the novel, there are other invitations for potential life changing confrontations framed by the food, and the way in which that food is prepared and offered gives scenes immediacy as well as normalization of what could be explosive situations. This is true of almost every culture. Discordant exchanges are either enhanced or softened by the sharing of a meal, and Lillian Li slyly incorporates such practices throughout this deceptively light toned novel. Jimmy and Johnny Han are second generation owners of The Beijing Duck House, which was the realization of their father’s dream upon emigrating to Maryland. The two other main characters are their employees, Jack and Nan, who have known each other deeply for 30 years, but are brought together by circumstance and misunderstanding. Their story is propelled by the fate of the restaurant, and their acceptance of fate also contains elements of black comedy. As the story unfolds, the Hans and their employees are brought to life vividly, their complex lives illuminated, and this made me hungry for some Peking duck.
You've got Jimmy Han, resenting the small and windowless Chinese restaurant his father once ran.
Jimmy's partnered with a hustling real estate agent to sell his mother's home and open a fancier fusion joint downtown. But his mother thinks otherwise and his not-quite-Uncle Pang is making moves of his own that involve the son of one of Jimmy's long standing waitresses of 30 years who is trying to unravel the nature of her relationship with her aged, and also married, co-worker whose wife is struggling with a cancer diagnosis. That's maybe 2/3rds of the actual plot points bandied about in this tragi-comedy about a uniquely American family and the swirling ecosystem of the Beijing Duck House. It's a lot to take in.
Every town across North America has it's requisite Chinese restaurant that you barely think about as you sit down and order your General Tso's chicken on plastic covered tables with Asian zodiac placemats. Lillian Li lets us poke our head behind the kitchen doors and spy the generational toil and drama that fuels these establishments and shows how uniquely Asian-American these stories are.