Books / Book Reviews

Review: Number one Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li


Number One Chinese Restaurant

One of the joys of reading literary prize lists – other than the excuse to carve out even more time that usual for books – is the reading of authors you might otherwise not have come across. And so, while the first of the books I read from the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list was a writer I already knew; the second was one I’d not yet come across.

Published to wide critical acclaim from the likes of Book Riot, Publisher’s Weekly and The Financial Times, Number One Chinese Restaurant is a memorable debut from this American author, set within the Chinese immigrant community of Maryland and centred around popular eatery, The Duck House restaurant. Managed by brothers Kimmy and Johnny Han, who inherited it from their late father Bobby. A long-running restaurant beloved by many, two of its key employees, Nan and Ah-Jack, continue to work despite their advancing years as they struggle to support their dependents. Nan’s seventeen year old son, Pat, has recently been expelled from school so now works a lowly job at the restaurant, while Ah-Jack’s wife is in the late stages of cancer with mounting medical bills.

One of the book’s biggest selling points for me was its rich cast of colourful characters, all of whom grow and evolve throughout the story. With scheming brothers, underhand Uncle Pang, and long-suffering mother and badly behaved children to contend with, there’s barely a quiet moment at this Rockville restaurant.

A pacy, plot-driven tale about familial ties, loyalty and resentment, all the while underpinned with a dark humour and simmering tension that bubbles to the surface, it’s easy to see why the smart and steadfast Number One Chinese Restaurant is a surefire contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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About Number One Chinese Restaurant

The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff’s professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.

Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father’s homely establishment. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenage daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, yearn to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

About Lilian Li

Lillian Li is the author of the novel Number One Chinese Restaurant. Her work has been published in the New York Times, GrantaGuernicaGlimmer TrainBon Appetit, and Jezebel. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.

Image © Kendra Winchester

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