Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: "Number One Chinese Restaurant" by Lillian Li

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the mid-1980s, my family ate dinner out nearly every Sunday evening, and more often than not, we ate Chinese food, as did many other families in my town. (I used to joke that there were classmates I saw more regularly at the Chinese restaurant than I did in high school!)

While there were several different Chinese restaurants in our area, and everyone had a favorite, we frequently ate at one particular restaurant, whose owners my parents had known for a number of years. The owner and his wife seemed to have a fascinating relationship, and the high school gossip I was then loved to make up stories about what was going on in their lives, as well as the lives of the other employees. Perhaps those memories were what drew me to Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant—that, and the fact that Li's book takes place in a suburb of Washington, DC known for its Chinese restaurants.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, has certainly seen better days, but it's still a favorite among the community's restaurants. The creation of immigrant Bobby Han, the Duck House was once a place where presidents and celebrities dined, but Bobby's death left the restaurant caught between his two sons, the more managerially suited Johnny, and the more impulsive, ambitious Jimmy.

Jimmy has dreams of getting away from his father's legacy and opening a fancier Asian fusion restaurant where he'd never again have to serve the dishes which exhaust and repulse him. But to make his dream possible requires striking a deal with the devil, one who has been on the outskirts of their family for years now, and doesn't know how to take the word "no" for an answer.

When tragedy strikes, it may make the achievement of Jimmy's dreams closer to reality, but it also upends the lives of many others. For longtime employees Nan and Ah-Jack, they are forced to confront the so-called elephant in the room, their friendship/flirtation, and decide whether to pursue something more after 30 years. But if they do, how will this affect Ah-Jack's wife and Nan's rebellious teenage son, Pat?

Pat, a dishwasher at the Duck House since being expelled from high school, is in the midst of a flirtation with Annie, the hostess, who happens to be Jimmy's niece. While Annie has very little love for her father or her family's restaurant, she's not expecting to get pulled into a scheme which threatens to destroy both.

As Jimmy tries to hold on to his dream, he must battle his brother, their seemingly ineffective mother, and the family friend whose menacing presence has always kept everyone on edge. But what does Jimmy really want? Is it making a name for himself, or continuing to bask in the spotlight his father built all these years ago.

There's a lot going on in this book, with no shortage of melodrama, family dysfunction, angst, and even a little crime for good measure. While the different situations the characters find themselves in certainly have potential, they never really grabbed my interest as I had hoped. I don't know if there was too much to digest (no pun intended) all at once, or if it was more that the characters weren't particularly sympathetic, but I felt that the plot really dragged, and never picked up much steam.

If you like stories of family dynamics, you might enjoy this one. The one thing I truly appreciated about this book is that Li didn't spend too much time dwelling on the food, so I didn't get as hungry as I often do when reading books about restaurants and cooks!

NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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